Species of the Week – Northern Red Oak

By Reshmina William, PhD in Civil Engineering at UIUC, RORG Volunteer

Mystified by the new plants you’re seeing in our campus rain garden? Want to know more about that elusive bird you spotted flitting among its trees? In this blog series, I’ll be spotlighting some of the many species of plants and animals that you are likely to see as the Red Oak Rain Garden comes into its own in Fall 2019.

An oak by any other name…

One of our most distinctive (and long-lived) inhabitants is the majestic oak tree that lies on the northwestern edge of the rain garden. The red oak that gives the rain garden its name actually predates the rain garden by several years. When Prof. Tony Endress and his class originally began to develop plans for the nascent project, they wanted to incorporate the beautiful old tree into their designs. In practice, that meant having to route water through the garden to stop it from pooling around the bottom of the oak, which tends to not like “getting its feet wet.”

The Northern Red Oak is a native species that is common across most of Illinois. These hardy plants can tolerate a variety of habitats, ranging from woodland, to drier areas of floodplain, to savannah. Their robustness and beauty – red oaks often have vibrantly-colored fall foliage– make them a popular landscape cultivar.

Today, the red oak plays an important role in keeping the garden dry between storms. A mature, large tree like an oak can return up to 40,000 gallons of stormwater a year to the atmosphere through its immense canopy. That’s over 500 bath tubs’ worth of water!

In the autumn, red oaks also provide a valuable food source for animals and birds: acorns. In a good year, red oaks have been recorded to produce over 273,000 acorns in a single season. These acorns, although slightly bitter in taste for humans, attract a plethora of chipmunks, squirrels, mice, ducks, woodpeckers, and pigeons. The next time you happen to pass by this majestic old oak tree, stop and take a look up into its branches. You never know what you might see…

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