Sometimes a common name does not give proper respect to the plant that is tagged with it, other times it shows its hardiness. Many plant Maples for shade trees and that is fine, but we really need to be planting Oaks. There are around 600 species of Oaks in the world. They are a keysetone species in every habitat they are present. Many types and species of wildlife depend on Oaks to survive. White Oak lumber has played a very important part in this nations growth and progress from ship building, barrels, furniture the list goes on..
In the southeast if you visit a nursery or garden center you will not find a large selection of Oak species to pick from. Usually you may only find one or two at best. Willow Oak, Quercus phellos has been the most popular species to plant as a shade tree. It is fast growing and transplants fairly easy. The latter is a problem with many Oak species including White Oak, Quercus Alba. Willow Oak is anchored to the ground very well. But, the small narrow leaves are very hard to clean up. Their shape and size enable them to get into every conceivable crack and crevice on a property. Larger leaves would be a plus. Also cold hardiness limits the range of Willow Oak colder than zone 6. I started evaluating all Oak species that were native in my area of North Carolina that I would feel very comfortable growing in the nursery and offering to the public, none quiet fit what I was looking for. Then I discovered Quercus bicolor, Swamp white oak.
Swamp white oak is mainly a tree of the the northeastern and midwestern states. There are small scattered populations in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. In North Carolina they are found in the central and northeastern counties, also listed in Guilford and Davie County. It is a very fast growing tree that has a great root system enabling it to tolerate wet mucky and compacted soils with occasional flooding, as well as drought conditions. It is recommended for planting far past its native range even into Colorado, by cities where it rains far less than in most of its native habitat. Its limb structure can handle wind, snow and ice perhaps better than any other Oak. As a wildlife tree its acorns are preferred above many. They were a favorite of Iroquois native Americans for their sweet taste. As an ornamental tree it is not a slouch. It is very fast growing. The bicolor in its botanical name refers to the white undersides of the foliage which help elevate its appeal. The trees canopy is outstanding. The bark is more scaly than regular white oak and a bit darker. Its younger limbs have peeling bark similar to a birch. The fall color can range from yellow to tan, to red. In my seedlings I have seen all the above.
Perhaps the greatest compliment thay can be given a tree is where someone plants it. Swamp white oaks, over 400 of them in all were selected and planted at the World Trade Center memorial at ground zero in New York City. They are the only thing that has been planted at the memorial besides one surviving Callery Pear. That is a story in itself. I dont know what you may think but I do not believe they would choose a trash tree or a weak tree for that site. In choosing shade trees to plant with beauty and strength, capable of living 300 years or more, choose wisely, choose Swamp white.oak, Quercus bicolor.