Rising above the rolling prairies as hymns once rose from 19th-century revival tents, the native trees of Kansas provide sun and wind protection for farmhouses and livestock. They are food sources for Kansas' birds, wildlife, and in some cases, people. Kansas' trees can fill the spring's landscapes with fragrance and color and set autumn ablaze with yellow, scarlet and orange.
The only birch growing as far south as Mississippi, river birch (Betula nigra) thrives along Kansas' streams, riverbanks and flood plains. Noticeable for its leaning habit and gracefully spreading crown with slightly drooping branches, river birch normally reaches 30 to 50 feet tall. Concealed beneath the tree's exfoliating silver bark is a striking reddish-brown trunk.
River birch produces small green or brown flowers in very early spring followed by tan cone-shaped fruit. Birds and small mammals feed on its seeds. A rapid grower, it is disease- and pest-resistant. Plant it in partly shady moist spots with neutral or slightly acidic soil. Prolonged drought is its worst enemy. Wait until its sap flow ceases in the summer before pruning river birch.
A giant among Kansas native trees, white oak (Quercus alba) belongs to the beech family. Reaching 100 feet high, in favorable conditions white oak can live up to 600 years. A straight trunk and thick horizontal branches spreading from 50 to 80 feet make white oak a favorite shade tree for Kansas summers.
Male white oaks produce blooms of yellow-green or red 2- to 4-inch catkins between May and June. Female flowers are inconspicuous. Acorns follow in late summer. White oak's fall foliage is deep red to maroon, and the leaves stay on the tree well into winter.
White oak's ripe (brown) acorns feed squirrels and small mammals. With proper preparation, they're also useful as a wilderness survival food, says the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Shell them and dice and boil the nuts for between 15 and 30 minutes or until the water is brown. Place them in clean water and repeat until the water is no longer discolored. This process removes the acorns' tannic acid and bitter taste.
White oaks grow wild in Kansas' bottom-lands and dry woods. They like moist, well-drained acidic sand or loam and sun to part shade. Older trees suffer from disturbed roots.
Sometimes called bee tree, American basswood (Tilia Americana) is another of Kansas' attractive shade trees. Reaching up to 80 feet high with a 40-foot spread, the trees have long, straight trunks and dense oval crowns. The dark green heart-shaped leaves become yellow in autumn.
Heavy 3-inch wide clusters of fragrant yellow flowers appear between April and June, attracting the bees responsible for the tree's other name. Commercially available basswood honey, says the American Honey Board, tastes similar to ripening fruit.
Basswood likes moist well-drained loam with a neutral pH. Grass and ground covers struggle in its heavy shade. Trees make attractive single specimens. When cut, however, their stumps often spurt several new trunks and produce entire groups of mature trees.