Notable Natives: Willow Oak - A Beautiful Native Shade Tree
By Susu Fiske, Inland Bays Garden Center | Special to the Coastal Point | Dec 8, 2022
Quercus phellos, Beech family (Fagaceae)
One of my favorite trees, the Willow oak, is stunning in the fall! Willow oak trees are also called swamp willow and peach oak. They have spear-shaped leaves around 2–5" long, like the weeping willow, each with a tiny bristle at the tip. They are beautiful oaks with willow-like leaves which are bright green in summer and yellow to russet in fall. Their limbs have a downward bend which makes them even more willow-like. These make excellent large decorative shade trees because their fine texture contrasts with the coarseness of most other trees. They grow in a pyramidal shape in their youth but have an oblong, rounded shape at maturity.
Willow oak is monoecious which means that their male and female flowers are in separate catkins on the same tree. The flowers are in slim yellowish catkins (long hanging flowers) and bloom from February to May before the leaf buds open. Willow oaks have acorns that are round and ½" long with a thin cap and grow from the female flower.
Swamp Willow has a great ability to survive under harsh city conditions due to its strength & ability to clean the air. It is a preferred oak for street plantings or large residences. Quercus phellos is a fast-growing oak that you can easily transplant and is tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions and tolerates poorly drained soil but prefers acidic soil (a PH of 6 or less) and full sun. This oak is used to restore wet areas because they can absorb so much water from the soil. These babies grow to 40'-60' with a 35' spread.
This oak is not evergreen in Delaware (yet) but is further South. They have a short trunk with gorgeous dark deeply grooved bark. They are native to poorly drained areas of the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains.
Willow Oak is a host for several butterflies, skippers, and moth larva, specifically the White M Hairstreak, Banded Hairstreak, Gray Hairstreak, and Juvenal’s Duskywing. Also, this oak is a host to the Northern Walkingstick insect. Bugs that use this tree are leafhoppers, treehoppers, lace bugs, plant bugs, leaf beetles, weevils’ aphids, larvae of long-horned beetles, gall wasps. The Willow Oak is a favorite host to leafhoppers: Eratoneura ellisi, Eratoneura immota, Eratoneura lenta, and Eratoneura phellos. In this area the acorns are enjoyed by squirrels, chipmunks, deer, foxes, raccoons, woodpeckers, blue jays, crows, grouse, quail, pheasants, turkeys, songbirds, and nuthatches. Wood ducks and mallards will also eat the acorns of Willow oaks.
- The first scientific observation regarding this tree was made in 1723. Willow oaks were found to be used for newel posts, pulpits, pews, bar tops, wagon axles, stairs, railing, balustrades, bedframes, and flour barrels by early pioneers. The acorns were used as substitute for flour and, when roasted with chicory, a coffee substitute.
- Thomas Jefferson’s Favorite tree
- Where a willow oak that is almost 5,000 years old grows is a California Forest Service secret
- Native Americans and colonials used concoctions of wood or bark externally as an analgesic, as a bath for aches sores, cuts, and hemorrhoids. The acorns were eaten for food and wood was used for crafts.
- Unfortunately, in Pennsylvania it is an endangered species
Photo & article by Susu Fiske