The oak trees native to Kentucky soil have assorted landscaping worth. Some make excellent shade, lawn and street trees, while others possess a form that allows them to be utilized for such jobs as hedges. The Kentucky oaks vary in size, and the state's location in the center of the country means that some of the northern oaks have their southernmost distribution in Kentucky, and vice versa for the southern oaks.
Northern Red Oak
You will have little difficulty locating the northern red oak (Quercus rubra) in Kentucky nurseries. Its roots are shallow, making it easily transplantable and much in demand. Use this Kentucky oak species as a shade or lawn tree. The northern red oak grows to 75 feet tall and features upright, spreading limbs. "Russet-red" is how the University of Connecticut plant database describes the fall foliage color. The acorns require two years to reach maturity and can become so numerous beneath the tree in the fall that they cause a litter dilemma. All of the state lies within this tree's geographic range.
The brown foliage of autumn often remains on the shingle oak (Quercus imbricaria) well into the Kentucky winter. Common in the western 80 percent of the state, shingle oaks grows to 60 feet in cultivation and to as much as 100 feet in the wild, according to the University of Kentucky. Shingle oak's name comes from the habit of the early settlers employing the wood to create shingles. The leaves are not at all like those of a typical oak, lacking lobes and looking more like giant willow leaves. The bark is gray and possesses furrows, which enhances the tree's appearance. Shingle oak will grow in full sun. It can be pruned when young and maintained as a hedge or a barrier.
When stuck for a landscaping tree for rocky hillsides, consider the chestnut oak (Quercus Prinus). Colonizing stony soil in upland sites in Eastern Kentucky is this tree's specialty. The silvery-white bark makes the species attractive, and the foliage is similar to that of the chestnut tree — elliptical with rounded teeth on the borders. The average chestnut oak grows to 70 feet, but some may exceed 100 feet. The sweet acorns are so tasty, you can munch on them without boiling them first. Imagine how much birds, deer and other wildlife will enjoy them.
Keep the willow oak (Quercus phellos) well away from a house or other structure; it grows to 80 feet with a canopy spread of some 50 feet. Useful as a shade, lawn or street tree, the willow oak gets its name from its long, narrow leaves. Willow oak is an easy tree to transplant, a fast grower compared with most oaks and one that adapts to many soil circumstances. Willow oak can handle being near ponds, swamps, streams and water gardens. The tree will develop bark that becomes dark and furrowed as time passes.
- University of Kentucky: Native Trees of Kentucky (Oak Tree Profiles)
- University of Connecticut Plant Database: Quercus Imbricaria
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Quercus Phellos
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Quercus Prinus
- University of Connecticut Plant Database: Quercus Rubra
- "National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees:Eastern Region;" Elbert L. Little, Revised 2008 (pages 405, 407)