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Live oak – A wonderful tree, but not always the best choice

March 6, 2017 by Scott

The live oak is not native to Denton County, but thrives exceptionally well in our area.  It is native across the southern gulf coastal plain over into central Texas.  There is a variety (or a separate species, depending on the expert) that is native up the west side of Fort Worth into the National Grasslands north of Decatur.  What is normally provided in the nursery trade is the standard southern live oak (Quercus virginiana). 

The live oak is normally a large spreading tree with very dense shade.  There are varieties, such as Cathedral and High Rise, that have a much more upright growth form.  But, normally, the tree wants to spread horizontally.   This makes for a beautiful tree, if you have the room for it. 

Live oak example

This is a live oak in Highland Village and it illustrates many of the problems with live oaks as yard trees:

1)  The tree is probably 25-30 years old.  The baldcypress tree on its left side has out grown it and is causing it to reach for light on the other side

2)  The tree has wanted to spread out, but has been pruned incorrectly over the years.  The limbs are long and lanky and there is very little internal limb structure.  The owner has struggled with constant maintenance to keep the tree up off the street and up high enough over his lawn.  With proper pruning through the years, the tree may have worked well in this space.

3) The crepe myrtle on the right side of the tree is crowding it, although the live oak is able to reach over the crepe myrtle.  However this is analyzed, there are too many trees in this front yard.

4) Live oaks create very dense shade.  Pruning won’t help this.   Aggressive pruning will only make for an odd looking tree.  May are pruned to look like a piece of broccoli in an attempt to get more light to the turf grass.

5)  Live oaks can be very messy trees.  They are deciduous, but shed most of their leaves in the early spring just as the new leaves are emerging.  Every leaf is shed every year.  In the fall they produce a lot of acorns that can cover the ground.   All year round, they are shedding something onto your lawn.

The Live oak is a great tree, however.  Here are its strengths:

1)  Great shade tree and a great climbing tree

2)  Drought tolerant

3)  Tolerant of most soil and moisture conditions from Acidic to Alkaline and from dry to wet.  They can even tolerate high soil salt content.

4)  Very few insect and disease issues.  The one devastating disease is oak wilt.  This is not a problem in Denton County since it is dominated by post oaks, but may be as all of the live oaks and Shumard oaks that have been planted over the past 25 years start to mature.  Oak wilt can be managed in live oaks, but it is a deadly disease.  Other than that, they have few real problems

4)  Very long lived.  A live oak with good genetics and proper care can live multiple hundreds of years.

The live oak is a great tree, but just be aware of its drawbacks and make sure it is the right tree for your property and for the location you have in mind for it. 

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