The willow oak (Quercus phellos), like all oaks, falls into one of two groups – the red oaks or white oaks. Willow oaks are a member of the red oak group. It is a tree that is native to Tennessee, but is not found naturally on the Cumberland Plateau. The willow oak pictured here is one of three that are on the grounds of the Crossville Housing Authority (CHA) on Irwin Ave. These trees were planted as part of the landscaping when the CHA was built in 1961. The willow oaks at the CHA prove that a non-native tree, if planted in a good location, can survive and flourish, as these have.
This tree can be identified several ways. The willow oak has a gray to black, irregularly furrowed bark. The leaves are two to five inches long and one-half to one inch wide, with smooth margins and a bristle-tipped point. They are a light green above and a dull and paler green below. In the fall they have golden-bronze foliage. Willow oaks produce a small, roundish acorn, one-half inch long, with a thin, scaly, saucer-like cup.
Willow oaks are found primarily in the southeastern U.S., and along the eastern coast as far north as the Chesapeake Bay. They are deciduous in most of this region, but along the southern-most part of this range, they are nearly evergreen.
Willow oaks prefer slightly acidic, moist, loamy soil typical of bottom-land soils, but they can adapt to other conditions. They will grow in full or partial sun. A willow oak will grow to two to four feet in diameter, and reach a height of 80-plus feet, with a crown width of seventy-five feet. This is not a tree for a small yard. Willow oak has become very popular with urban foresters since few pests or diseases affect it, it withstands the heat of a Tennessee summer quite well, and it reaches a respectable size in a decade or less.
The willow oaks found on the grounds of the CHA are excellent examples of how a willow oak can mature in an urban environment.