Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Swamp White Oak: Fast-Growing and Moisture-Loving

Quercus bicolor

Swamp white oakLarge swamp white oak in the Clay Plain forest
(a floodplain of the Hubbardton River in Vermont.)
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

Swamp white oak is a native tree of many of the northeastern States, particularly the northern Ohio River valley and adjacent areas. (For a county by county map of where swamp white oak grows naturally, visit the Quercus bicolor page on the USDA/NRCS Plants Database, and click on the state that interests you.)

I was excited a few years ago when I finally spotted a swamp white oak. A nice specimen grows near a little creek at an I-24 rest-stop, very near the Ohio River in Illinois. It is growing in exactly the sort of place swamp white oak likes and needs. It prefers a damp site and will tolerate flooding.

It's very important for swamp white oak to have an acidic soil. A soil pH of 6.0 to 6.5 is perfect according to Gary Hightshoe's Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America*. The USDA/NSRC Plant Guide for Swamp White Oak suggests a soil pH of less than 7.2.

If you're thinking of planting this tree, get a soil test of the potential site through your local university extension office. And if you learn that your soil is alkaline, don't plant a swamp white oak.

A swamp white oak grown in alkaline soil will develop a condition called iron chlorosis. It will look ugly, grow poorly, and die much younger than it should. Iron chlorosis can be treated with various chemicals --but why set yourself up for all those problems?

The swamp white oak also requires soil that is in the finer half of the spectrum -- that is, it likes silts, clays, and loams much more than coarsely textured sandy or gravelly soils.

In the right place, Quercus bicolor will grow as much as 2 feet per year. It will have characteristics one expects of an oak:

1. It will be resistant to wind and ice damage.
2. It will be a nice shade tree.
3. It will be a great tree for wildlife, providing food to a wide range of species.

It would be easy to transplant a young swamp white oak if you find one in the wild. Swamp white oak has a spreading, shallow-growing root system.

Dig it up with as much dirt as possible using "ball and burlap" techniques to keep the soil in place. Plant it at the same depth that it was previously growing. The cool weather of spring or fall is the best time. Or collect the acorns in the fall and plant them yourself instead of relying on Mother Nature.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

*Bibliographical info for Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America by Gary L. Hightshoe is provided at the bottom of this column.

4 comments -- please add yours:

Anonymous said...

thanks for the info. I have some hunting acreage in central WI with a clump of swamp white oak right next to my small cabin. I want to transplant some of the smaller trees in wooded bottomland and on a sandy soil hill. These trees are very close to each other so I needed info on root system.
I'll give it a try this spring. JP

Genevieve said...

According to my tree bible (Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America by Gary L. Hightshoe), swamp white oak has the following:
"Root Pattern: shallow, fibrous, transplant readily B&B in early spring or late autumn."

"B&B" means "ball and burlap." I recommend transplanting as soon as the temperature stays mostly above freezing.

Genevieve Netz said...

Received in email from Jennifer Panek on 20 Jul 2014:


I was reading your June 22, 2007 post on swamp white oak. I thought it was very irresponsible that you mentioned how easy it would be to dig up and transplant a young plant found in the wild. Removing plants from the wild to take home where the chance of survival is low should not be encouraged. In fact, in some places, such as certain parks and natural areas, it is even illegal to remove plants. I realize that post is quite old now, but I am asking you to not encourage such activities in the future.

Take care,


Did you not read that swamp white oak is a tree that is easy to transplant? The likelihood of a transplant surviving is high -- not low, as you state. Also, swamp white oaks are not a rare or endangered species. Seedlings often spring up abundantly in the vicinity of swamp white oak trees -- that's why stands of swamp white oak trees occur. In addition, I stated the conditions under which a swamp white oak is likely to thrive. I did not advocate transplanting any tree, anywhere; rather I said that swamp white oaks could be transplanted successfully.

Obviously, no one should dig up plants on government property. However, there is still a lot of privately held property in this nation, and some of that private property has swamp white oaks growing on it. I hope that readers would have the decency to ask permission from the landowner before digging up a swamp white oak seedling on private property. However, if the landowner gives permission and if the young tree is moved with care using established procedures for ball and burlap transplanting, I don't see anything wrong with it. This oak transplants well -- see the comment I made to JP above.


Anonymous said...

I have been studying Swamp white oaks, and oaks in general for the three odd years. I have found that when you stated a `` shallow root system'' this is far from the truth. I've actually dug one up that grew naturally on a ``well drained site,'' this same site drys out tremendously in the summer as well. This tree was putting on 2 feet or so of growth a year, and was cut at some time within the last year. This SWO was on the side of our field, so it needed to be taken out, so it would not interfear with our farmground fields. Anyways i dug all the roots, and it had a taproot with several developed laterals that went 3 1/2 to 4 feet deepp easily, and little to no roots in the top foot of soil. So ``shallow roots'' is a real mytth, and they can handle drought very well when established if not abused or on a deprived harsh site.

Click any label...

advice (45) alder trees (1) Arbor Day (1) ash trees (11) Atlantic white cedar (1) atmosphere (2) autumn (1) bald cypress trees (8) bark (8) bayberry trees (1) beech trees (8) big trees (11) birch trees (2) black cherry trees (1) black locust trees (2) black walnut trees (7) Bradford pear trees (2) buckeye trees (2) butternut trees (1) catalpa trees (4) cherry trees (2) chestnut trees (1) Christmas trees (1) copyright (1) corkwood (1) crabapple trees (1) dogwood trees (6) drought (2) Eastern redbud trees (5) Eastern redcedar (5) ecosystem (6) education (5) elm trees (4) emerald ash borer (11) Empress tree (2) fast growing trees (7) festivals and carnivals (2) fir trees (1) firewood (6) foliage (11) forest (14) forest fires (1) forestry (7) freebies (2) ginkgo trees (1) hackberry trees (4) hawthorn trees (3) hemlock trees (1) hickory trees (11) historic trees (9) history (42) holly trees (1) honeylocust trees (2) hophornbean trees (1) hoptree (1) hornbeam trees (2) internet (3) invasive (13) juniper trees (5) Kentucky coffeetree (2) landscaping (3) larch trees (1) linden trees (1) logging (4) maple trees (10) mimosa trees (3) mistakes (14) narrow trees (1) native fruit (9) native trees (16) oak trees (38) old growth forests (5) ornamental trees (6) osage orange (5) pawpaw trees (1) pecan trees (1) persimmon tree (3) pine trees (9) poems (5) poison-sumac (1) poplar trees (10) prehistoric trees (3) quizzes etc. (1) rhododendron trees (1) sassafras trees (3) serviceberry trees (2) Silver maple trees (2) small trees (4) spring (7) spruce trees (4) statistics (2) sumac trees (4) sweetgum trees (4) sycamore trees (10) tall trees (5) tree cavities (1) tree identification (8) Tree of heaven (2) tree planting (11) tree problems (40) tree removal (2) tree roots (5) trees for problem spots (7) tuliptrees (tulip poplar) (2) urban forest (7) viburnum trees (1) wetlands (5) wild plum trees (4) wildlife trees (27) willow trees (6) witchhazel trees (1) woodworking (2) yellowwood trees (1) yew trees (1)

Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927)

Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Photos and text copyright © 2006-2010 by Genevieve L. Netz. All rights reserved. Do not republish without written permission. My e-mail address is