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Water oaks have benefits and problems
Mississippi Gardens Newspaper and Web Column - September 8, 2003

When I was growing up climbing trees was a favorite pastime. The woods in my old neighborhood have all but disappeared due to urban development, but a few of the old trees still remain. These few can still be seen, as they stand surrounded by neatly mown turf grass in what is now a subdivision. Those old trees hold lots of memories of kids climbing, building forts and taking shelter from the summer sun. Back then, my main interest in trees was whether or not the limbs were strong and if it was tall and good for climbing. Since then, my interests have changed from climbing them to evaluating how well they look and perform in our Southern landscapes.

Climbing trees is fun, but having one in my landscape that looks good, resists insects and disease pests and has the potential to live a long time is really valuable. There are plenty of trees that are well suited for urban plantings and, then there are those that may be dear to our heart but are better suited for wooded environments than our residential landscapes. One that fits this latter description is the water oak (Quercus nigra).

The water oak is not a tree that I intend to malign. Yet over the years when I have been asked to evaluate a problematic tree it was usually a water oak. Problems range from huge dying limbs hanging precipitously over city streets or weak stems standing too close to a structure.

Water oaks are native to our area and wildlife loves them. Deer, quail, turkey and squirrels value the acorns of water oak and squirrels frequently use it for nesting. The wood of water oak is used for factory lumber, cross ties, timbers and fuel. However, most water oaks in Southern landscapes were not chosen by the homebuilder or the homeowner, but were either left when the lot was first cleared or planted by the friendly, neighborhood squirrel population!

I am a proponent of using native trees in the landscape and will be the first to admit that young water oaks look great (see photo) if they are planted in good soil with full sun exposure. Nevertheless, as time progresses we may find that they are susceptible to trunk cankers and heart rot. It may also suffer from wood boring insects, mistletoe infestations and shade intolerance.

This doesn't mean that all water oaks should be removed, but they should be examined from time to time to assess their overall condition. Pruning may be necessary to remove dead or damaged limbs. Fertilizer should also be used to help keep the trees healthy and vigorous. Remember also that there are some better oaks for the landscape that include Live Oak, Shumard, Red or White Oak and Nuttall to name a few. Happy Gardening!

Publications may download photographs at 200 d.p.i.: Tree | Leaves | Stem

These archived columns were written by Kerry Johnson<, a hobby gardener, former weekly newspaper columnist and an Archives Extension Horticulture Agent for 11 coastal counties in Mississippi.

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