(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.