Shade Tree of the Week — Nuttall Oak (What’s that?)

November 13, 2011 | By | Comments (21)

Any discussion of great shade trees for home gardens has to start with the oaks. Oaks are tough, adaptable, long-lived, strong-wooded, and tolerant of heat, cold, and drought. Most are also beautiful. But as with any large group, some oaks are gems while others are losers. Here is a relatively little-known gem that is getting rave reviews for its looks and ease of growth — Nuttall oak.

Notall oak2
Native to the American Southeast and Midwest, Nuttall oak (Quercus nutallii) is quickly replacing some other oaks, such as pin oak (Q. palustris), red oak (Q. rubra), and Shumard red oak (Q. shumardii), because it combines all of their good points while lacking their weaknesses. It quickly grows into a pyramidal tree 40 to 60 feet tall with a strong central leader. It accepts most soils, even alkaline or wet ones. It drops all of its leaves cleanly in late fall. Nuttall oak leaves plenty of head room beneath its branches, making it an excellent lawn, patio, or street tree. It doesn’t develop surface roots and won’t invade water lines.

Nutall oak3

Maples are rightly recognized as the best shade tree for fall color, but Nuttall oak is no slouch. Its deeply lobed leaves turn bright red in mid- to late fall, usually after the maples have dropped. I took these photos last week at Aldridge Botanical Gardens in Hoover, Alabama.

Now you may think that a tree with a nutty name like Nuttall oak would be hard to find at garden centers and nurseries. Not necessarily, young Skywalker. Because of the tree’s quick growth and pleasing shape, wholesalers like growing it and retailers like selling it. You just have to ask for Nuttall oak by name. It’s a good choice for USDA Zones 5-9, which includes all of the South except tropical South.

Don’t Plant This

Probably the most widely planted oak is pin oak (Q.palustris), named for the fact that before people made pins from steel, they made them from pin oak. (See, this is the kind of interesting trivia you just won’t find in other blogs.) Pin oak owes its popularity to its fast growth, pyramidal shape, and red fall foliage.

Unfortunately, it also suffers from two major flaws. First, its lower branches hang all the way to the ground, making it impossible to walk, mow, or park a car beneath it. Second, it absolutely requires acid soil. If your soil is the least bit limey, pin oak’s leaves will be yellow in summer instead of green. The lack of chlorophyll responsible for the yellow means the tree can’t make food from sunlight, so it slowly starves to death. Even lime leaching from nearby concrete can cause this. So plant Nuttall oak instead.

COMMENTS

  1. Steve Bender

    Garry,

    The best time to prune a maple is in summer or fall. If you prune at other times, the cut will bleed sap.

    December 8, 2014 at 2:12 pm
  2. Garry Monroe

    I live in SC. When is the best time to trim or prune a maple tree.

    December 4, 2014 at 8:19 pm
  3. Steve Bender

    Lopi,

    Nuttall oak is rated a Zone 5 plant. It won’t grow as fast in Canada as down here, but nothing much will. Don’t know what they think is better, but don’t let them talk you into an ash! An insect called the emerald ash borer is killing them all. Poplars and willows are bad choices too because of weak wood and invasive roots.

    April 22, 2013 at 12:58 pm
  4. Lopi256

    Called my local nursery they hadn’t a clue about the Nuttall oak and of course they tried to tell me to steer clear of oaks because they are slow growing. I live in Ontario Zone 5. Can someone clearify if this is a zone 5 or 6 plant. I have seen them listed as both.

    April 17, 2013 at 10:21 am
  5. Steve Bender

    Brian,
    I don’t think that’s possible.

    December 7, 2012 at 3:00 pm
  6. Brian Spacek

    …and I spoke too soon. Your attempts at humor (like your blog) are a waste of my time. Goodbye.

    December 7, 2012 at 2:38 pm
  7. Steve Bender

    Brian,
    I loved you in “The Life of Brian.” Especially the ending. Always look on the bright side of life.

    December 7, 2012 at 2:27 pm
  8. Brian Spacek

    Steve,
    Why don’t you blog about movies instead of trees, (since you appear to know more about the former).

    December 5, 2012 at 4:07 pm
  9. Steve Bender

    Brian,
    Tell your sister I loved her in “Carrie.”

    December 4, 2012 at 2:48 pm
  10. Brian Spacek

    “Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    I think it was formerly called Texas red oak (Q, texana) in Texas (Texans like claiming things for Texas), but now the accepted name is Nuttall oak and that’s how it’s sold outside of Texas. From my observations, it grows faster and larger in the Southeast than in Texas, but it’s still a great tree in both places.”

    Apparently people not from Texas who anoint themselves as magnificent could benefit from researching what they don’t know.

    November 27, 2012 at 8:28 pm
  11. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Glad to hear this tree is working out for you, Becky. It is a good alternative to ashes, which no one in your area should be planting any more.

    July 13, 2012 at 3:17 pm
  12. Becky

    It was good to see your post on this tree, indrectly affirming our choice of tree! We planted a Nuttall in fall 2010, and it is doing well, even in the heat and drought of the Midwest. We have clay soil, too. It is nearly twice as big as when we planted it. Growing very nicely –symmetrically, as shown in your picture. I highly recommend this tree, too, with the caveat to not overplant, as many did with Elms and Ashes…

    July 13, 2012 at 12:08 am
  13. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    That’s right, Mike. Good luck with your new trees.

    May 31, 2012 at 3:33 pm
  14. Mike

    “Pin Oak” was named that because their wood was used to make pins? Well, now we know. I’m assuming you mean “pins” for holding structural members together in building construction and not hat pins.

    May 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm
  15. Mike

    I was not familiar with this oak since it isn’t found locally. I was surveying North of the Ark River about 60 miles away from my home and read another surveyor’s notes where he had marked “Nuttall Oaks” as corner witness trees. I found them (the trees) and became familiar with them in that way. Those woods have bountiful Nuttall Oaks. It was late fall and their acorns were covering the ground and the deer were chowing down. I took two acorns and planted them in flower pots and they both germinated this spring and are both now about 18″ tall. Glad to know they don’t have to be planted in wetlands
    (like where I found them) as I want to plant them high and dry. They are indeed beautiful oaks.

    May 30, 2012 at 12:27 pm
  16. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    I think it was formerly called Texas red oak (Q, texana) in Texas (Texans like claiming things for Texas), but now the accepted name is Nuttall oak and that’s how it’s sold outside of Texas. From my observations, it grows faster and larger in the Southeast than in Texas, but it’s still a great tree in both places.

    November 16, 2011 at 3:24 pm
  17. esh

    By the way, it seems that this is called Quercus texana now. In your research, what do you find it called in the trade these days? Are they still using the old name then?

    November 15, 2011 at 1:17 pm
  18. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Esh,
    Side-by-side trials by growers of Nuttall oak vs Shumard oak have come out in favor of Nuttall big time. It isn’t that Shumard is a bad tree. It’s just that in terms of adaptability, growth rate, and form, Nuttall is better.

    November 15, 2011 at 8:26 am
  19. UrsulaV

    I’ve got what I think is Nutall oak in the backyard (I didn’t plant it) and I definitely prefer it to the willow oak, which sends the thick roots all over. It’s a pleasant tree, and hickories like to grow up under it.

    November 14, 2011 at 9:06 pm
  20. esh

    Well I was thrilled at your post championing that swell red maple last week and now you come out with this. This is a beautiful tree – I certainly did not realize it was superior to Shumard oak (certainly better than that overused pin oak, bless his little native heart). Thanks for pointing out some of our great native choices.

    November 14, 2011 at 1:13 pm

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