“What happened instead was that the tree fell in love with him and began to murmur fondly of the joy to be found in the eternal embrace of a red oak. “Always, always,” it sighed, “faithful beyond any man’s deserving. I will keep the color of your eyes when no other in the world remembers your name. There is no immortality but a tree’s love.”
– Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn
The majestic Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) is an iconic player in New England forests. It is performs as shelter, provider, filter, and soil builder.
Red oaks provide nesting sites and cover for birds, whether it’s the cavity-dwelling red-bellied woodpecker or the nest-building cerulean warbler. They are also home to nesting gray squirrels, red squirrels, and raccoons. And of course, they become home to many, many insects.
Red oaks benefit an astounding 534 species of Lepidoptera (butterflies, moths, and skippers)! These trees provide plentiful food for caterpillars, which in turn become food for the nestlings of songbirds.
Red oaks bloom in late March and early April. While they are often wind pollinated, there are native bees and nonnative honeybees that will collect pollen, a healthy protein, from these trees.
Red oaks also drop acorns in the fall. Gray squirrels, red squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, mice, rabbits, opossum, deer, crows, quail, turkeys, blue jays, wood ducks, and more, feed on acorns. White oak acorns are often preferred, but the astringent red oak acorns are higher in nutrition.
Forests filter and regulate water all the time. They reduce storm water run-off, and remove nutrients and contaminants from the soil. Large, mature deciduous trees are very good at this. If you prefer fewer metals, pesticides, and hydrocarbons in your soil and water, trees have got your back.
Large trees are natural topsoil builders. When we think of a tree, we often think of a large form with a thick trunk and a crown of leaves. Sometimes, we might think of the seed of a tree, such as acorn or walnut. We rarely think of the tree at its end of life. Over the years, trees are subjected to damage from animals and storms. Eventually, they either die standing upright, what we call a snag, or they fall over and become a log. In both cases, stuff gets interesting. The snag is home to insects, and often to cavity-dwelling fauna like woodpeckers, bluebirds, owls, and squirrels. The log becomes home to a large variety of insects, arachnids, chilopodes (centipedes and millipedes), annelids (worms), salamanders, toads, and so on. All of this movement and chewing and and pecking and gnawing breaks the tree down over time. Plants and fungi play a role in this decomposition as well. Every time a tree dies, it is broken down and builds up the topsoil, which supports a new generation of plants, and more trees.
All in all, the oak is a mighty addition to any yard’s ecosystem. If you have room for an oak in your yard, plant one. If you already have an oak or two or more, enjoy it – or them. Don’t remove the leaves from beneath its branches, as that is its very own self-fertilizing system. Pruning isn’t really required unless you’re concerned about widow-makers. Prune in the dry season, June and July. If the oak is dead or dying, consider cutting it down to a manageable and safe height to create a snag. Snags are wonderful habitat for very cool birds.