Pin Oak

A Young Pin Oak

"The wind is singing through the trees tonight."

-Amy Lowell


We will in the next few years be losing our old Chokecherry which due to old age has a rotting main trunk, & if we don't eventually cut it down, it will eventually fall in an uncontrolled manner. We're hoping to have it for a few years yet, however, & had started looking for a young but tall tree that we could crowd close to the Chokecherry, so that as the new tree grows & spreads, we can remove the very wide Chokecherry section by section (since it's trunk "octopusses" into multiple trunks). According to the plan, by the time we have to say a final farewell to the last sections of the Chokecherry, the new tree should be large enough to be already taking its place.

We did not quickly realize the tree destined to fill this purpose would be a Pin Oak (Quercus palustris).

Granny Artemis had been watching for a Pin Oak for some while, but never spotted one that we both agreed was beautiful. As a rule Pin Oak saplings are narrowly straight up & down & won't show a lot of character & spread until they are much older, when they become broad pyramidal trees with up-reaching higher limbs, right-angle horizontal central limbs, & pendulous lower limbs. On this one, however, it had been underlimbed so that there were no lower limbs to hang downward. Near the top it was entirely at odds with the sentry-stance of most young Pin Oaks, bowing downward in a manner usually restricted to Pin Oaks' mid-to-lower limbs. My assumption is that when it was much shorter, it had two leaders, one of which was beginning to take on a subsidiary role as Limb, but the grower who trained it selected the "wrong" leader resulting in a specimen quite different from the species' usually predictable uniformity.

Its oddity apparently made it unsalable, so that the nursery moved it into the surrounding forest into an area of severely discounted plants. Most folks looking for a Pin Oak would not expect the underlimbing & would likely judge the bent-over leader "incorrect." But to Granny Artemis & myself, its very oddity made it extraordinary. Our minority opinion meant that a tree that had gone usold when priced $230 we were able to obtain for a scant $60.

At the nursery, we stood underneath the sweep of the leader gazing upward, & I instantly realized how perfectly it would crowd up to the big old Chokecherry. Usually when we have a biggish young tree delivered it seems smaller in our yard than it seemed on a nursery lot, as perspective makes a little tree seem big when surrounded only by small shrubs. But we got the Pin Oak at a nursery in the amidst a Douglas Fir forest, & we'd first seen the Pin Oak underneath old growth which dwarfed the Pink Oak. When the tree was delivered, it was pleasantly startling to realize it already reached the top of our two story Edwardian house.

Our new tree was already taller than the elderly Chokecherry, though the Chokecherry looks enormous with its big multiple trunks branching as wide as it is tall. By contrast the Pin Oak had one slim trunk with only a few branches. We trimmed back one of the big branching arms of the Chokecherry & squeezed the Pin Oak nearby. It immediately looked just right; it looked like it had grown in that spot from a tiny acorn. Some years hence, by the time it would have been crowding the Chokecherry too much & needs more space to itself, the inescapable loss of the rotting-out Chokecherry will not seem so overwhelmingly a sad thing, as there will be such a strong & vibrant Pin Oak in its place.

The picture above was snapped in September 2002 looking from the upstairs bedroom window, showing only the top of the tree. It was dusk with the last rays of sunset shining on the leaves. In the dark background you can barely make out telephone wires several feet beneath the top of the tree. When I snapped this picture it was just beginning to take on Autumn coloration, having faded from green to yellow-green. A week later it was a brilliant red & gold, & those bright leaves clung to the branches until late October. As a member of the Red Oak subgenera, Pin Oak is famously beautiful in Autumn.

It's thus far only a tall though sapling-slender trunk with few branches & this unusual sweeping tip. Pin Oaks occasionally max out at 30 or 40 feet in yards, so it's possible it already has two-thirds of its height for the foreseeable future, even though in the very long run it could indeed reach 50 to 70 feet some day, but not likely ever so tall as wild forest specimens which can be 120 feet.

Pin Oaks are among the fastest growing oaks, but I'm expecting most of its growth in the next few years to be in the trunk's girth, bark's thickness, & limbs' width, until it has spread ten feet in all directions for a 20 or foot spread. It will be interesting to watch it develop & I hope it retains some semplance of its "bowing" posture, though I suppose it could over time end up becoming a typically symmetrical specimen.

Pin Oaks are native of the eastern United States where they frequently inhabit poorly draining swampy areas in full sun. Poor drainage wouldn't suit them so well "in captivity," though they can be surprisingly forgiving of imperfection. Once established Pin Oaks have moderate water requirements. We've planted ours in well-draining soil, & placed many shade plants below it, so the tree will have all the water it wants as we care for the under-garden. At present the shade plants get their shade from the chokecherry, but someday the Pin Oak will be the dominant shade tree in that yard.

One drawback some people note about Pin Oaks is the pendulous lower limbs touch the ground making it hard to mow grass or tend to smaller plants. But we'll keep this one underlimbed so that it eventually canopies that side of the yard with plenty of room to walk, lounge, or do gardening underneath.


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