Water Oak Warning
Keith Hawkins, Area Extension Forester
When I was starting out in professional forestry, I was a service forester in an urbanizing county in Virginia. My job was to address the issues surrounding urban forestry, a new theme in in forestry. Nothing I learned in college prepared me for this new area of forest management so I went to trainings and studied up on the topic. One of the questions I frequently encountered was: What is the fastest growing tree for my landscape? One of the facts I learned in urban forestry was to avoid planting fast growing trees because they would be short lived and become maintenance headaches. Fast growing trees tend to have weak wood so broken branches and tops would require heavy clean-up.
One of my favorite recommendations at that time was to advise homeowners to plant water oaks because they are oaks trees with a fast growth rate. My reasoning was that the water oak would be a good compromise between growth and longevity.
Since that time especially after being a County Agent in Beauregard Parish, LA, I have learned that water oaks are the “teenagers of oaks” in that they have “issues”. According to Clemson (SC) Cooperative Extension writers Debbie Shaughnessy and Bob Polomski, water oaks have these problems:
“It is more weak-wooded than most oaks and prone to damage from wind, snow and ice. It does not resist decay well, and damaged wood will begin to decay and decline. Trunks often rot by the time a water oak is 50 years old. Shallow, spreading root systems compete for water and nutrients in the soil, causing problems with grass or other plants planted beneath a water oak. In warmer climates leaves drop all winter, making raking a constant task.”
I can affirm the observations of Shaughnessy and Polomski by virtue of site visits with homeowners. Large water oaks tend to have broken branches and obvious cavities. When these compromised trees are near homes, improvements, and parking areas, I consider them to be hazard trees and recommend their removal.
Still, water oaks can be good shade trees in the first 30 or 40 years. Shaughnessy and Polomski make these recommendations:
“Train this tree to a central trunk, pruning to keep the main branches spaced 2 feet or more apart. Prune regularly to avoid making large pruning wounds that may cause decay. Lower branches droop as trees grow older. Prune as needed for clearance.”
If you have a younger water oak, enjoy it while it is healthy and robust. As it ages, keep an eye on it for damage which will likely be a site for decay. If you have concerns about your water oak, contact your County Agent or Extension Forester and ask for a site visit to see if you aged water oak is becoming a hazard tree to your home.
The Area Extension Forester for Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Jeff Davis and Vernon Parishes is Keith Hawkins, 337-463-7006. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.