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A Floridata Plant Profile #1058 Quercus hemisphaerica
Common Names: laurel oak, upland laurel oak, damn laurel oak
Family: Fagaceae (beech Family)
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tree  Attracts Birds Fast Growing

laurel oak
Laurel oaks are fast growing. When Jack first moved to his place this laurel oak's trunk was 3 inches in diameter - eighteen years later it is more than 24 inches and posing a squash hazard to his house.

If a tree can be a weed, this one is the champ! Laurel oak, or "damn laurel oak" as I call it, is a greedy, fast growing, fast dying tree that manages to get its acorns planted anywhere and everywhere. Thick stands of laurel oak seedlings and saplings can form nearly impenetrable thickets where the mower has not been in a couple years. Larger specimens collude to capture all the sunlight, leaving the leaf-covered ground in total shade. The biggest damn laurel oaks will drop limbs on your car and eventually fall across your house.

Laurel oak grows rapidly into a moderately large tree up to 60 ft (18 m) tall with a straight bole and a rounded crown. The leaves are typically oblanceolate, meaning they are widest (if only a little) above the middle, but they can vary from narrowly elliptic to lanceolate. They are glabrous (without hairs) and about 1-3 in (2.5-8 cm) long and 0.6-1.2 in (1.5-3 cm) wide. Laurel oak is tardily deciduous, meaning it drops a few of its old leaves during the winter, but sheds most of them all at once as the new leaves unfurl and flowering begins in early spring. The dangling catkins release tremendous clouds of wind-borne yellowish pollen that dusts cars, water surfaces and everything else for miles around. The acorns take two seasons to mature.

Laurel oak (Quercus hemisphaerica) is similar to water oak (Q. nigra) in many respects, but the latter always has at least some (if not most) leaves spatulate (spoon) shaped, whereas laurel oak leaves are never spatulate shaped. Laurel oak is also similar to willow oak (Q. phellos), but that tree has distinctly linear, almost willow-like leaves and tufts of hairs on the undersides of its leaves. Laurel oak is most similar to (and sometimes confused with) diamond-leaf oak (Q. laurifolia), which is a larger, wetland tree that always has at least a few, if not most, leaves distinctly diamond shaped. Next to habitat and leaf shape, the best way to tell these two apart: Diamond-leaf oak has tufts of hairs within the axils between the midrib and main lateral veins on the undersides of the leaves. Laurel oak leaves are totally glabrous, lacking any hairs on the undersides of its leaves.

laurel oak leaves and acorns
A couple of immature acorns nestle among the laurel oak leaves. Later in the season, along with countless numbers of their peers, they will ripen, drop to the ground and germinate into seedlings that can quickly overwhelm a garden or flower bed.

Quercus hemisphaerica occurs on moderately to well drained soils in all types of mixed woodlands, scrub oak associations, pine plantations, old fields, vacant lots, and fence rows. It rapidly colonizes disturbed areas that are not mowed, and fire-adapted habitats (such as longleaf pine savanna) from which fire has been excluded. Laurel oak is often planted as a shade tree. The natural geographic range of laurel oak is the southeastern Coastal Plain from southern Virginia to central Florida and westward to eastern Texas. The very similar diamond-leaf oak (Q. laurifolia) occurs on moderately to poorly drained soils in bayheads, mixed swamps, flood plains, bottomland forests, and along streams and lakes. It's natural range includes the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont from New Jersey to southern Florida, and westward to eastern Texas and Arkansas.

Light: Laurel oak grows slowly in the understory as long as it is shaded, but grows up quickly when exposed to full sun.
Moisture: Laurel oak thrives in well drained soils and is tolerant of normal droughts that might occur within its natural range.
Hardiness: USDA Zones 6-10. The natural range of laurel oak includes zones 7 through 9.
Propagation: The acorns, planted as soon as they ripen in the fall, can be expected to germinate the following spring. However, throughout its natural range, laurel oak (in collusion with irresponsible squirrels) seems to occupy all suitable habitats until mowed down or burned.

Laurel oak is commonly planted as a street tree because it is tolerant of poor conditions, grows fast and doesn't get as large as some other oaks. It is a favorite shade tree for residential landscapes. However, laurel oak is prone to rotting from within and larger trees are nearly always at least partly hollow. Limbs are prone to break off. When a tree falls on a house or car in the southeastern U.S., it is, more often than not, a damn laurel oak. The wood is coarse grained, heavy and hard, and not good for lumber. It makes good firewood, though. And I grow shiitake mushrooms on laurel oak logs.

The very characteristics (rotting, hollow trunk, limb drop, gradual deterioration of the wood, and early death) that deem laurel oaks less than desirable for the cultivated landscape, make them especially desirable for wildlife! The funguses, wood boring beetles, carpenter ants and grubs that feed on the decaying wood are themselves food for lizards, woodpeckers and songbirds, which are food for snakes, hawks and owls. And all kinds of critters find shelter in the cavities and gradually decaying wood of the laurel oak. In addition, the regularly huge acorn crops provide food for squirrels, deer, and other beasts, and the leaves are eaten by caterpillars of hundreds of moth species. Those caterpillars, of course, are eaten by songbirds which are eaten by owls ...

Laurel oak's airborne pollen, often released in dense clouds, can be a nuisance to some people.

Steve Christman 09/02/07; updated 02/04/10

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