Swamp White Oak: A Tree for Utah
by Michael Kuhns, Extension Forestry Specialist
Among the many wonderful oaks that can do well in Utah, one sounds like it would be well out of its element. The name swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) conjures up images of cypress swamps, snakes, and bayous. What's the sense in planting such a tree in a desert?
In fact swamp white oak does prefer wet sites in its native range, the northern half of the eastern U.S. And no one likely knows how it would do if planted in a lowland site in Utah with less than 15" annual precipitation and without irrigation, though it would probably die. In most of its native range swamp white oak probably receives 30" to 60" of precipitation annually. But it thrives on as low as 25", an amount easily supplied with modest irrigation in Utah.
Oaks, of course, are desirable for landscape plantings because of their strong wood, longevity, and generally pleasing form. Swamp white oak has a nice excurrent form when young, with a fairly strong central leader and conical habit, becoming more rounded when it gets older. Its shallowly lobed leaves are 5" to 7" long, 2" to 4" wide, dark green and glossy above, and pale and hairy to woolly beneath. Interesting characteristics include curly and papery bark on the twigs and an acorn with a long stalk. Like many oaks it is intermediate in shade tolerance, so it can stand some shade but not much.
Swamp white oak grows fairly slowly and can become a medium to large tree, perhaps reaching 60' to 70' in Utah. Michael Dirr, in his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, says this tree needs an acid soil and will develop iron chlorosis otherwise. I have seen a beautiful row of these trees growing in a park in Lincoln, Nebraska where the pH is probably about 7.2. These trees were doing fine and showed no chlorosis. Its use should probably avoided on our highest pH sites. It should tolerate compaction and poor drainage fairly well, a plus in any urban area. It has a nice yellow to orange fall color. Cold tolerance should be no problem in most of Utah, since to does well in USDA zones 3 to 8.
Swamp white oak may be hard to get, like many other desirable but seldom used trees. Still it is worth trying, even if you have to buy fairly small stock. First see if your local nursery can order it. I have seen several sizes of this tree listed in the catalog for Forestfarm Nursery, 990 Tetherow, Williams, OR 97544 9599; (503) 846-7269.