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Quercus - Care Guide
There are at least 600 species of Quercus (even excluding Lithocarpus) and Burncoose currently stocks around 20. We have however tried to select those varieties which are hardy enough to grow well in UK gardens, those which have something particularly novel or exciting to offer in their leaf formations and appearance as well as the more common oak species which need very little introduction here.
Over the years we have tried to grow many of the newly introduced Mexican oaks. A good few of these have failed, not just with us, but in other SW gardens because they are, in the main, simply not hardy enough for our climate.
The author is a member of the International Oak Society whose members exchange oak seed with each other and we have therefore grown quite a few more species than we currently offer. Many oak species are really the preserve of the serious oak collector. There are superb oak specie collections at Penrice Castle gardens on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales, and at Chevithorne Manor in Devon where the late Michael Heathcoat-Amory established an oak garden which is now a Plant Heritage national collection of oaks. If you want to see at least 400 different oak species in one place Chevithorne is the place to go!
To make this confusing and complex genus easier to understand and to help in choosing oaks which gardeners may want to try we have categorised the species which we offer as follows:
Hardy evergreen oaks
Q. myrsinifolia grows at Caerhays as a windbreak hedge. It grows to around 20-30ft with us in maturity and has lance-shaped leaves which are 5in long. The new growth is, briefly, an attractive bronze red. Our plants only very seldom produce solitary acorns. This is a Chinese and Japanese species.
Q. phillyreoides grows with us to 25-30ft. It has smooth brown-grey bark and toothed leaves which are bright dark green.
Q. rhysophylla ‘Maya’, the loquat leaf oak, originates from Mexico but has proved perfectly hardy in Cornwall. It has very attractive reddish new growth maturing to a bullate glossy green.
The Chinese Q. acuta has grown into attractive large spreading trees at Caerhays with dense foliage and leathery, upright, pointed dark green leaves. Clusters of acorns form but few seem to develop into acorns. We raise this species from autumn cuttings on the mist bench over winter.
Q. semecarpifolia is an interesting species in that, on young plants, the leaves are spiny but they become entire on mature plants. The tree at Caerhays was planted in 1991 and is now around 30ft tall. It loses a bit of foliage in gales but suffers no long term harm.
Q. ilex, the ilex oak, should need no introduction as a superb wind tolerant species in coastal or exposed conditions. It makes an excellent hedge on the edge of the garden and its leaves, grey-brown on the undersides, rustle in the wind. These trees are just as important to protecting Cornish woodland gardens as Pinus insignis.
More tender evergreen oaks
Q. virginiana, the lire oak, has leathery leaves which are green above and whitish underneath. It grows into a large tree in the SE USA but it can be tender outside western counties in the UK.
Q. insignis is a Mexican species which attempts to be an evergreen but usually loses most of its leaves in a windy winter or a colder one. It has very attractive pink new growth in spring and again in the autumn. It is the autumn new growth which puts it at risk. However, at Llanover Gardens in Monmouthshire, an early introduction of this still relatively unknown species has grown sturdily to around 15ft.
Oak species with exceptional leaf colours in spring or autumn
The two best known for their autumn colours are perhaps Q. coccinea, the scarlet oak, and Q. rubra, the red oak. Both are North American trees which play a big part in the amazing autumnal displays there. The yellow leafed form of Q. rubra is outstanding too all through the season. At Wisley a huge plant of Q. rubra ‘Aurea’ greets you not far inside the garden entrance.
However Q. dentata ‘Carl Ferris Miller’ and ‘Sir Harold Hillier’ are both excellent forms of the Diamo oak. This grows quite slowly into a statuesque branching tree with huge ovate green leaves which gradually turn brown and hold on the tree right through the winter to give a very pleasing effect. ‘Sir Harold Hillier’ has the added bonus of deep orange to pink autumn colour.
Q. liaotungensis also keeps its leaves hanging on the tree all winter.
Q. velutina, the black oak, also has huge irregularly lobed leaves and reddish-brown and yellowish autumn colour.
Then there are oaks with wonderful spring new growth colours:
Q. buckleyi, the Texas red oak, has exceptional autumn colours too but its new growth is bright red both in spring, and again in autumn, when it produces a second set of red growth. This keeps its new leaves long into winter with us but is actually deciduous.
Q. x schuettii ‘Silver Shadow’ has delightful green leaves whose undersides are very silvery.
Q. warei ‘Chimney Fire’ has exceptionally vivid red autumn colour but very noticeable new growth too.
The pictures above try to do justice to the exceptional qualities of some of these oak trees.