We often get the question: “What is the Best tree?” in our department. The proper answer is the Right Tree. But if I had to pick one species of tree that seems to do most of the heavy lifting in Arlington, while also being an absolutely majestic tree, the White Oak (Quercus alba) really takes the cake.
White oaks have rounded leaves with deep lobes, unlike red oaks, which tend to have bristles and pointier leaves. The acorns are fairly large, around an inch in length. The bark is the most distinctive, being a silvery-grey striped bark. The tree’s form is very broad and wide, though it doesn’t get as tall as some of the other oaks.
This amazing tree dominates a significant part of our natural tree canopy, shared with other oaks, tuliptree, and hickory. Historically, white oaks were found on the east coast rivalling the redwoods of California (see the picture on the right). The majority of these trees were felled during the settlement of our region, and the expansion westward after the Civil war.
Our current national champion, at a diameter of approximately 8.5 feet, while very impressive, does not seem to come close to some of the pictures found in historical records.
The white oak acorn, after processing, is one of the more edible acorns, and was used widely by Native Americans and early settlers to make bread, cakes, and porridge, and the meal was even traded as a commercial good between tribes. If you’re confident about your identification skills. You can even try to make your own acorn bread.
This tree was also an extremely valuable timber tree for construction, and was also used to create furniture, and the stripped wood was used for baskets and chair bottoms. Because it grows relatively slowly, other trees have surpassed the tree commercially, but the wood remains a much more resilient and strong material.
What Makes it One of the Highest Value Trees?
While Arlington County recommends planting a wide variety of trees, white oaks provide some of the highest value from many perspectives:
- Structurally, white oaks are some of the most reliable trees to grow near your house. With their relatively slow growth, and strong root network, the tree prioritizes stability over fast growth. This alone makes the tree a great long-term investment
- Large Canopy trees in general, when maintained well, provide the highest environmental benefit to our community, with high rates of stormwater interception, air filtration, reduced air conditioning costs, and increased property values, and health benefits. A single 30 inch diameter white oak can provide close to $30,000 in benefits over its lifetime.
- Entomologist Douglas Tallamy, in Bringing Nature Home, shows through review of research on the wildlife benefit of trees on the East coast of America, that the oaks provides the most significant food value to a full range of animals. Lepidoptera, or moths and butterflies, Dr. Tallamy’s focus, is a group of insects with over 600 different species finding their home with the oaks. White oak, in particular, was shown to support the most species of all the oaks. The caterpillars of these species are crucial to the survival of our birds, as it provides their main source of protein. Since white oaks are native to this region, and in the middle of their ecological range, it is likely we provide close to the whole range of wildlife benefits by maintaining and planting them.
- White oaks are some of the longest-lived broad-leaved trees on the east coast, living up to 600 years. They are rivaled only by the Black tupelo, another tree favored by foresters, and the coniferous trees, such as hemlocks and bald cypress.
- And what sells most people on them, is that they’re absolutely stunning trees: