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Nuttall oak is one of the most common oaks of the Arkansas lowlands and it makes an
excellent landscape tree. (Image courtesy Gerald Klingaman)
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- We plant nerds pride ourselves in being able to identify things,
but sometimes we get it wrong. Last year, I was called in to teach a woody plant ID
class at the University of Arkansas, and in preparation for this, I started prowling
around various commercial landscapes looking for specimen plants.
One especially nice collection of oaks was noted and I identified what I thought were
five species. This year, the trees made acorns and I went back and learned there were
six. A planting originally identified as all Shumard oak turned out to have Nuttall
oak (Quercus texana) grouped on one end.
Nuttall oak is in the red oak tribe and one of the 40 plus kinds of native oaks found
in Arkansas. It is a strong growing, unbranched tree with a pyramidal form while
young that transitions into a round-headed tree 60 feet tall and about 45 feet wide
Upper branches are ascending while lower limbs are held out vertically and don’t droop
with age as seen in pin oak. It occurs in contiguous stands along the lower part of
the Mississippi River basin from southern Illinois to East Texas and Alabama. In Arkansas
it extends up the Arkansas River Valley to about Russellville. It grows in low bottomland
situations, sometimes in fairly wet wintertime sites.
Leaves of Nuttall oak are usually 5 to 6 inches long with six to 11spine-tipped lobes
and generally on the smaller end of the size scale when compared to look-alikes like
Shumard oak and pin oak. To me, the leaves most closely resemble those of scarlet
oak (Q. coccinea), a species native north of Arkansas.
New growth of Nuttall oak is often maroon in color. In fact own-rooted clonally propagated
forms such as “Sangria” and “Arcade” are available in the nursery trade based on this
characteristic. Each new leaf flush has maroon leaves that transition to green as
the foliage matures over about a month. Fall color is usually maroon-red and occurs
in mid November. Unlike the look-alike species, Nuttall oak usually drops its leaves
The identifying characteristic of this species is the acorn. It is a medium sized
acorn about an inch long and .75 inch in diameter. The cap covers the basal 30 to
40 percent of the acorn whereas Shumard oak usually has a fatter acorn but the cap
only covers the basal 15 percent of the nut. Pin oak, with its smaller acorn and very
shallow cap and brownish striations on the side of the nut, is easiest to identify.
Nuttall oak was first identified as a distinct species in 1860 by Samuel B. Buckley
(1809-1884), a man with wide interest in all aspects of the natural world. He was
appointed assistant geologist and naturalist for the Texas Geological Survey, working
under the supervision of Benjamin Shumard. Born in New York and with northern sympathies,
he returned there during the Civil War but returned to Texas where he eventually became
the state geologist. Two of the 200 new species of plants he named were Quercus texana and Q. shumardii, whom he astutely named after his boss.
But buried in the dusty files and with little in the way of herbarium documentation,
the species got lost in the shuffle until the 1920s when E.J. Palmer (1829 – 1911),
an English born botanist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture rediscovered it in
east Arkansas. He named the species after another English botanist, Thomas Nuttall
who was the first trained botanist in Arkansas who traveled up the Arkansas River
in 1819. Finally in the 1980’s botanists began untangling the confusion over names
and now the accepted name is Q. texana with Nuttall oak retained as the common name.
Nurserymen too have re-evaluated the lineup of oaks they grow and Nuttall oak has
become the favorite for growers in the southern states. They report it to be one of
the fastest growing of the oaks while young, easily transplanted, tolerant of poorly
drained soils and adaptable to a wide array of soil pH conditions. While Shumard oak
shares many of these conditions, Nuttall oak has a less brooding presence in the landscape
with its less coarse leaves.
The tree is well suited for use anywhere a large shade tree is needed. It can be grown
in zones 5 through 9.