Winter Scene

Winter Scene

This is not the typical picture one would see on a Christmas card or December calendar page, yet I think it is ravishing! It is more typical of the Midwest landscape than the evergreens and red berries of England and New England.

I do have to explain the tree, though. For many years I thought it was a Chinquapin Oak. But upon closer examination of the leaves, I realized I was wrong in my identification. Looking through The Tree Identification Book, its leaves matched those of the American Chestnut. American Chestnut was never indigenous to northern Illinois and it has been all but obliterated in the rest of the country by a lethal blight–how could this be? I photographed the tree and its leaves and sent the photos to Dr. Gerould Wilhelm, author of Plants of the Chicago Region and he identified it as Quercus acutissima or Sawtooth Oak. It is not native here, however, but to Asia. It is only marginally hardy in the Chicago region, growing principally in sheltered locations, but it is common to the south and east of us. Unfortunately, it has become invasive in some woodlands, due to prolific acorn production.

The Midwest, does, however, have other oak trees with persistent leaves.
It closely resembles our native Chinquapin Oak (Quercus muhlenbergii).

Chinquapin Oak winter foliage in a parking lot at Geneva Commons

Chinquapin Oak is also called Yellow Chestnut Oak, referring to the leaf’s resemblance to that of the American Chestnut. It the wild it is found on wooded, rocky slopes, usually in calcareous soil, which makes it suitable to plant in parkways and parking lot islands that are surrounded by alkaline concrete. For that reason, it has recently become popular and, therefore, available at local nurseries.

Wide-spreading, it grows 50-60’ tall and wide. The small, sweet acorns, produced every 3-4 years, are relished by critters. It is drought-resistant and will grow in full sun or part shade.


Chinquapin Oak summer foliage at Chicago Botanic Garden

Red Oak (Quercus rubra) keeps its foliage all winter, as well. Red Oak, as you can see in this picture, thrives in the shade of other trees; in addition, it is found in the wild on east and north slopes. In landscape situations, however, it will grow in full sun.


Red Oak, because it doesn’t have a tap root, is easy to transplant. It has a narrower silhouette than other oak trees growing 75-100’ tall and 50’ wide.


White Oak, when young, hangs on to its lower leaves all winter.


Young White Oak in autumn.

Wild-spreading to 50-80’ when mature, White Oak (Quercus alba) grows in a neat upright oval-pyramidal shape when young. It is the most difficult of the oaks to transplant; it is best done in the seedling stage. Like all oaks, it grows readily from acorns.

Underplant these trees with Penn Sedge (Carex pensylvanica) or Spreading Oval Sedge (Carex normalis) as shown in the top picture.

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