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As a kid growing up in northwest Ohio, I was drawn to a “big” tree on the edge of town that I saw every time my parents would drive by it as I sat in the back seat. I would dream of the fables and stories that this old giant could tell, but only if this grand old tree could just talk.
In Ohio and adjoining states you can find these giants to the tree world call the Bur or Burr Oak or the Mossycup Oak or Overcup Oak the Mossycup White Oak. Its botanical name, which is in Latin and is Quercus macropcarpa. The Quer in means fine and cua means tree
Century Old Giants
It is the most picturesque of the Oaks of the Midwest, especially in winter. Its fiddle-shaped leathery leaves, huge fringed acorns, thick and sometimes corky twigs, and deeply ridged bark add to its bold texture. The name Mossycup comes from its unique structure that surrounds this trees seed structure called the acorn. -a huge (1.5" long) oval acorn (thus the Latin species name macrocarpa—large fruit) with a thick cap that is fringed (like mossy in texture) at the lower end, covering almost the entire nut. You will find the common name of this tree spelled two different ways and both are correct, Bur or Burr.
These giants of the Oak world can age into centuries and become major fixtures in the landscape and the woodland rural settings. Near Posey Indiana, the national champion resides that is estimated to be at least 500 years of age and is 295 inches of circumference and stands 99 feet tall and 128 feet wide. This particular tree has been around since the year 1500AD.
The Burr/Bur Oak is a tree that is well woven into the fabric of American history and current events. Consider these important Bur/Burr Oak trees and historical events associated with this great species of tree and why they are so valued:
• The famous Council Oak at Sioux City, Iowa, was the shade tree under which (according to legend) explorers Lewis and Clark met with a group of Native Americans in 1803; when it was cut in the 1970s a replacement bur oak was planted soon after to mark the historic spot.
• The Bur/Burr Oak in McBaine, MO is the largest Bur Oak tree in the nation and was the site where Daniel Boone made an overnight stop and wrote of the trees unique character.
• Richard Eberhart, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet considered one of the foremost writers of lyric verse in the 20th century grew up in Austin Minnesota on a farm called “Burr Oaks”, whose name he used as the title of volume of poems in 1947.
• In 2014 the University of Michigan was donated $400,000 to transplant a 250 year old Burr/Bur Oak during the renovation of the Ross School of business.
One Incredible Adaptable Tree
Bur/Burr Oak is one of the most cold tolerant of the North American Oak species that can reach 130 feet in height with a crown spread as much as 175’. This species of tree is found north of the great lakes and all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Its wide zone hardiness is from zone 2 to 8. This tree can grow in the northernmost habitats, including south-central New Brunswick to the Gulf of Mexico.
Bur/Burr Oak greatest population is where the annual growing-day temperature exceeds 40 °F and there are only 150 frost-free days. Conversely the Bur/Burr oak's northwestern range, the average growing season may be only 100 days, but in southern Illinois, western Ohio and Indiana is where Bur/Burr oak development is considered best, the growing season is at average of 190 days.
Interesting early settlers planted Bur/Burr Oak extensively in the Great Plains during the 1800's as a fire resistant, drought tolerant, good timber and a wonderful shade tree.
The current Burr/Bur Oak native range runs from coastal plains of central Texas through the central plains portion of the United States well into Southern Canada, across the great lakes into Pennsylvania through most Ohio through all of Indiana and Illinois. There are small pocket ranges in Delaware and scatter in the Mid-Atlantic States. Bur/Burr Oak is now being planted in Anchorage Alaska as an urban tree and is thriving.
Bur/Burr Oak is a very well adapted species to most urban landscapes. Species is well adapted to high pH soils and will tolerant even low pH soils as well. This plant is drought tolerant, consider this, during a severe 7-year drought in the Great Plains, researchers monitoring injury and mortality in the area reported that Bur/Burr oak endured drought especially well. This tree can flourish with annual precipitation can be as low as 15 inches in Bur/Burr Oak's northwestern range, while in its southern range annual precipitation can exceed 50 inches .
While Bur/Burr Oak tolerates harsh soil conditions, including poor, dry soils and wet, poorly drained or inundated soils. This tree’s distribution is not necessarily dictated by soil characteristics. What is the limited factor is that Bur Oak tree does not tolerate prolonged flooding or heavily water logged soils.
Smokey the bear policy has reduced the population
The pre-colonization population of this tree species in North America was found over a large portion of the eastern U.S. from Atlantic Ocean well into the plains states. Bur/Burr oak savannas in the Midwest and Great Plains were ideal sites for European settlers, because they provided wood for homes and fuel, and forage for livestock. Native Americans and settlers utilized acorns from this species and other oaks for a source to make flour after the tannins where leached out. Agricultural and urban development together with fire exclusion led to widespread loss of the bur oak savanna ecosystem.
The Burr/Bur Oak’s slow decline in population in the forest systems in the United States was the result of the absence of “fire events”. In United States with the adoption of the “Smokey the Bear” policies by the U.S. Forest Service and land development. Burr/Bur Oaks thick bark allows it a high tolerance to forest fire events, these fire events would burn off invasive and fire sensitive species of other trees and plants. These fire events allowed the Burr/Bur Oak and other Oaks to be a dominate species for centuries.
Food and shelter for others
Bur/Burr oak acorns are eaten by black bears, deer, wood peckers, cattle, goats, squirrels, cottontails, mice, and other rodents. Several bird species including wild turkey and grouse will utilize bur oak trees or communities for nesting and for foraging.
However, heavy nut crops are borne only every few years. In this evolutionary strategy, known as masting, the large seed crop every few years overwhelms the ability of seed predators to eat the acorns, thus ensuring the survival of some seeds .In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Bur/Burr oak is browsed(plant parts eaten) by deer, moose, and rabbits. When browsing pressure is heavy, this tree may be dwarfed and/or less abundant, so newly planted trees may require protection.
Acorns have become popular for human consumption in certain specialty food markets and now are being sold due to acorns are exceptionally high in fat and carbohydrates.
Slightly more expensive than Red Oak, Burr/Burr Oak is often sold as White Oak and is in good supply and a sustainable species and is moderately priced. It is used for Cabinetry, furniture, interior trim, flooring, boatbuilding, barrels, and veneer.
What happen to your childhood memory tree?
You may ask how about that old Burr/Bur Oak that you saw when you were a kid? Well that same tree greets me every time I visit my family in Northwest Ohio and it’s as amazing as it was the first time I saw it when I was 5 years old. This tree today is a young Burr/Bur Oak, since it is only 275 years old. The amazing part is this tree has been hit by lighting multiple times and shows no signs of decline or loss of vigor.
Each time I see this Bur/Burr Oak, I am humbled by its sure presence and its ability to adapt and thrive under a multitude of conditions. This same tree was seen by my father growing up, both my grandfather’s till their deaths and my great grandfather’s when they arrived from the old world to make Ohio his home. This grand old tree is a testimonial of how trees can be an important part of any family’s legacy.
Can I plant one in my yard?
Bur/Burr Oak is an excellent tree for most urban landscapes as long as soil conditions don’t become water logged for an extended periods of time. Additionally this species of Oak is an excellent selection for Ash trees you may be replacing related to Emerald Ash Borer and is shade tolerant, so it can be planted as an understory tree with existing stands of larger trees that you plan to loose or remove soon.
You can purchase your Burr/Bur Oak at most local nurseries and garden centers. They are grown and sold in containers or in ball and burlap forms. Be sure to provide the tree you select plenty of room to grow in a full sun site.