When I was starting out in professional forestry, I was a service forester in an urbanizing county in Virginia. My job was to address the issues surrounding urban forestry. One of the questions I frequently encountered was “What is the fastest-growing tree for my landscape?” One of the facts I learned in urban forestry was to avoid planting fast-growing trees because they would be short-lived and become maintenance headaches. Fast-growing trees tend to have weak wood, so broken branches and tops would require heavy clean-up.
One of my favorite recommendations at that time was to advise homeowners to plant water oaks because they are oaks trees with a fast growth rate. My reasoning was that the water oak would be a good compromise between growth and longevity. Since that time, especially after being a county agent in Beauregard Parish, Louisiana, I have learned that water oaks are the “teenagers of oaks” — because they have “issues.”
According to Clemson Cooperative Extension writers Debbie Shaughnessy and Bob Polomski, water oaks can be problematic because their wood is relatively weak compared to other oaks, which makes it more prone to wind, snow and ice damage. Water oaks also start to rot starting at around 50 years old, so their branches start falling more frequently and readily. Water oak trunks will also form cavities more abundantly as they age because of this weak wood. Their root systems are shallow, making it tougher for grasses and other plants to thrive under them because of water and nutrient competition. In warmer climates such as ours in Louisiana, they drop their leaves throughout the winter months, so you’ll get a workout from frequent raking. When these compromised trees are near homes, improvements and parking areas, I consider them to be hazard trees and recommend their removal. Still, water oaks can be good shade trees in the first 30 or 40 years. Shaughnessy and Polomski recommend pruning water oaks regularly and keeping the main branches spaced more than 2 feet apart to avoid the need to prune large, drooping branches later. Pruning larger branches increases the risk of injuring the tree.
If you have a younger water oak, enjoy it while it is healthy and robust. As it ages, keep an eye on it for decay-related damage. If you have concerns about your water oak, contact your county agent or extension forester and ask for a site visit to see if you aged water oak is becoming a hazard tree to your home.
— Keith Hawkins is an associate extension agent for ag and natural resources and forestry for Beauregard, Grant, LaSalle, Rapides and Vernon parishes. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The LSU AgCenter and the LSU College of Agriculture