Published in the Boerne Star on February 12, 2011
Last month Bill Ward wrote about tree diversity as a hedge against the spread of “oak wilt” that mostly attacks live and red oaks. He introduced the first of seven trees that are being promoted by the Operation Nice! (Natives Instead of Common Exotics!) in 2011. The chinquapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), the second such tree, is the February Plant of the Month.Chinquapin oak, a member of the beech family (Fagaceae), is a moderately to rapidly growing medium to large, deciduous shade tree, reaching 30-50 tall feet in the Texas Hill Country. As a young tree, it has a slender upright canopy that spreads becoming more rounded with age, not unlike many of us.
Emerging leaves are reddish to green and turn a glossy, dark green at maturity. They can reach 4”-6” long and have saw tooth edges that resemble leaves of the chestnut or chinquapin trees found in the eastern United States (Castanea spp.). The top of the leaf is shiny and smooth; the underside is fuzzy.
According to Jane M. Bowles, PhD, Herbarium Curator and Arboretum Director at The University of Western Ontario in Toronto, Canada, Quercus muehlenbergii was described by “George Engelman (1809-1884), the German-American botanist whose collections are in the Missouri Botanical Gardens, St. Louis”. The species name honors Gotthilf Heinrich (Henry) Ernst Muhlenberg (1753–1815) who was a Lutheran pastor and amateur botanist in Pennsylvania.
The chinquapin oak’s size and shape make it especially suitable for any landscaping needs, including urban lots. It has also been designated as a Texas Superstar™ plant by Texas A&M AgriLife Research. That means this tree has undergone several years of extensive field trials by Texas AgriLife Research and the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, both part of the Texas A&M System.Among this oak tree’s attributes is its nice fall color ranging from yellow to a rich bronze. In addition, it is drought tolerant, and grows in a wide range of environmental conditions including well-drained bottomland soils to rocky limestone hills. It can tolerate acidic soils, but grows best in neutral or somewhat alkaline conditions – a plus in the Texas Hill Country. Chinquapin oaks produce acorns that are sweet and eaten by wildlife and humans. They are the sweetest of all oak acorns. Ripe acorns can be taken out of the thin, tan to brown shell and eaten. Unripe green acorns will be bitter. Acorn meats can be processed and dried or roasted and used to make bread dough, muffin batter and a coffee substitute.
The hardwood of the chinquapin, although not used widely commercially, is valued for woodworking. The bark of mature trees is thin, shaggy or flakey and brown to grayish in color and resembles that of white oak (Quercus alba).
Growing a diversity of native plants is important to sustain local and migratory wildlife. The chinquapin oak is a larval host for the Gray Hairstreak butterfly and the flowers attract hummingbirds in April and May. What better way to enjoy your own slice of nature than growing native plants that support wildlife and give us shade, color and sustainable enjoyment.
The Boerne chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas provides planting and care instructions for chinquapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) as well as other Plant of the Month! plants and sponsoring nurseries on its website (https://npsot.org/wp/boerne/).
Photos courtesy Sally and Andy Wysowski from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center gallery.