Willow Oak: Favorite Wildlife Food and Landscape Tree

Willow oak (Quercus phellos) is a common oak, deciduous with simple leaves. It has a dense and usually rounded crown. It is a member of the red oak family and has distinctive longish, linear leaves to a 5" length maximum. The acorn crop begins at about 15 years of age and continues as the tree matures. It is noted for rapid growth and long life (over 50 years).

Willow oak grows on a variety of moist well-drained soils, commonly on lands along streams, low-land floodplains and other watercourses. This medium to large southern oak with willow-like foliage is known for its rapid growth and long life. It is a source of lumber and wood pulp but is very important to many species of wildlife because of heavy annual acorn production.

It is also a favored shade tree, easily transplanted and used widely in urban areas along the coastal Atlantic and the southeastern United States. It typically does well on elevations less than 1,300 feet. It is considered to be a good shade tree and is widely planted as an ornamental.

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The Silviculture of Willow Oak

willow oak tree leaves
(Michael Wolf/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Since willow oak produces an acorn crop almost every year (fruit ripens over two years), this oak is an important species for wildlife food production. It is also a good species to plant along the margins of fluctuating-level reservoirs. The acorn is a favorite food for ducks and deer.

Willow oak has only a medium tolerance to shade but seedlings may persist for as long as 30 years under a forest canopy. They will die back and resprout and these seedling-sprouts will respond to release.

Willow oak is sometimes grown in hardwood plantations since it gives a good combination of pulping characteristics and a high rate of growth. It is not a preferred oak for high-quality grade lumber but excellent for hardwood pulpwood.

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The Images of Willow Oak

willow oak leaves
(Jim Conrad/Wikimedia Commons)

Forestryimages.org provides several images of parts of willow oak. The tree is a hardwood and the lineal taxonomy is Magnoliopsida > Fagales > Fagaceae > Quercus phellos. Willow oak is also commonly called peach oak, pin oak, and swamp chestnut oak.

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The Range of Willow Oak

Distribution map of the willow oak tree
(U.S. Geological Survey/Wikimedia Commons)

Willow oak is found mainly in the bottomlands of the Coastal Plain from New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania south to Georgia and northern Florida; west to eastern Texas; and north in the Mississippi Valley to southeastern Oklahoma, Arkansas, southeastern Missouri, southern Illinois, southern Kentucky, and western Tennessee.

Illinois's first state park, at Fort Massac, has several of the species on site. These trees have some distinction as overseeing history at the fort that sits on a strategic location on the lower-Ohio river. The near loss of 3 willow oaks at that location and scarcity of the species in the state make it protected as a state threatened species in Illinois.

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Willow Oak at Virginia Tech

willow oak tree acorns
(USFWS photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Leaf: Alternate, simple, 2 to 5 inches long, linear or lanceolate in shape (willow-like) with an entire margin and a bristle tip.

Twig: Slender, hairless, olive-brown in color when young; multiple terminal buds are very small, reddish-brown and sharp-pointed.

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Fire Effects on Willow Oak

wildfire and firefighter
(Jeff Head/Flickr)

Willow oak is easily damaged by fire. Seedlings and saplings are usually top-killed by low-severity fire. Large trees are top-killed by high-severity fire. Prescribed fire is a good tool to use control willow oak where they compete with "crop" tree regeneration and growth.

In a study on the Santee Experimental Forest in South Carolina, periodic winter and summer low-severity fires and annual winter and summer low-severity fires were effective at reducing the number of hardwood stems (including willow oak) between 1 and 5 inches (2.6-12.5 cm) in DBH.

Annual summer fires also reduced the number of stems less than 1 inch (2.5 cm) in DBH. Root systems were weakened and eventually killed by burning during the growing season.