The willow oak (Quercus phellos) is a member of the native oak tree species, despite its atypical appearance. The tree's slender leaves, which resemble those of a willow, have given rise to it's name. The tree is also known as peach oak, again, because of the size, color and shape of its foliage. However, it is a true oak, in that its fruit (seed) is an acorn.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Native Plant Database indicates that willow oak grows across the entire eastern half of the U.S. and into parts of Texas. The tree produces large crops of acorns, which often result in pure stands of the trees. The U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests that thinning a stand of culls (poorly shaped specimens) will encourage the growth of taller, more desirable trees.
The willow oak is a medium to large tree that reaches an ultimate height of nearly 100 feet with a trunk diameter as large as 72 inches. The tree grows best in moist, well-drained soils that are slightly acidic. It is not tolerant of extremely wet conditions and fares best in sunny or partially shaded areas. It is not well adapted to understory growth, and is particularly vulnerable to damage by wildfire. Because it is a shallow-rooted species, willow oak helps control soil erosion.
Willow oaks have a variety of uses. They are often planted as street trees, landscape trees or shade trees. In the autumn the foliage turns from yellow to russet before finally falling off. If you decide to plant willow oaks in your yard, be mindful of the tree's ultimate size. It should be planted far enough away from your house to allow it to grow properly. Additionally, this tactic will help keep your gutters clear of falling acorns and leaves. On a commercial basis, willow oak is harvested for railroad ties, sawn lumber and firewood. Wild animals such as deer, squirrels and wild turkeys readily consume the acorns.
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