Mystery Plant: Tree can grow to 70 feet tall
Here’s one of the finest oaks around. In the summer, its branches may form a huge, rounded canopy of brilliant green leaves, providing a beautiful dappled shade on the ground below. Even on a hot summer day, the ground below could be a few degrees cooler, offering respite for the weary nature-lover. Down in the shade you may see ironwood and water-hickories scattered about, and maybe some dwarf palmetto, as well as a red-bellied water snake (or a cottonmouth) as this is a tree that likes the bottomlands.
It’s completely deciduous, as the photo suggests, and those bright green leaves so high up during the summer are now easy to gather up off the damp, chilly February ground. These handsome leaves are up to seven or so inches long, shaped somewhat like a swollen football. The lower surface of the leaf feels a bit like soft felt, as there are many thousands of tiny, short hairs present. Even on the dead leaves, the lower surface is much paler than the upper surface, and of course, this feature is obvious on the living foliage. Each leaf margin is equipped with a series of rounded or triangular, short lobes, up to about 15 on each side, and for this reason, this oak’s leaves are commonly thought to resemble those of a chestnut. (But a chestnut’s leaf lobes are more pointy, and usually with a bristle at the tip.)
This being an oak, we’ll expect it produce acorns, which is does with great style. The acorns are relatively large, sometimes nearly one and a half inches long, and with a rounded or flat, scaly cup at the base. The acorns are ripe after a single, full season of growth (some oaks, growing in similar sites, such as cherrybark oak, have acorns that take two seasons to mature) and then they fall heavily to the forest floor. Plenty of wildlife species eagerly devour the nuts, as the flesh is sweet and nutritious.
The trees have whitish, flaky bark, and can be pretty darn big, up to 70’ tall. This species is fairly common in bottomlands from New Jersey and Pennsylvania south to northern Florida, and then over to Texas and the lower Midwest. It grows in bottomlands, but doesn’t like its roots covered with water, so most often it’s seen on slight elevations, a bit removed from the cypresses and tupelos. Plant taxonomists classify this species within the “white oak” group, all of these various species sharing leaves with rounded, bristle-free lobes, acorns that mature in one season, and having pale, scaly bark (most of the time). Our oak’s wood is strong and heavy, and is valuable as a general timber source, but has also been used, historically, for making slatted baskets. Not only is it a beautiful native species, it makes an outstanding shade tree for parks and streets. I’m proud to say that we have an outstanding example of it on our campus…come visit me some time here at the Herbarium, and I’ll take you to see it!
[Answer: "Swamp chestnut oak," Quercus michauxii]
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196.