Native Tree of the Week: Northern Pin Oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis)

November 13th, 2012 at 3:25 pm by under Chad's WLFI Weather Blog


At the end of the Wisconsin Ice episode or end of a series of Ice Ages (Pleistocene) that totally buried the ancient Teays River Valley & leveled the landscape, much water remained from the melting ice.  With the land totally re-worked, the land was considered geologically young…………….& still is.  Water was back-upped by piles of sand & soil left over, scraped from Canada & large, large areas of stagnant water, unable to drain sat.  With time, such water drained as the ice totally receded & the sediment laid down became wind-borne as winds were very, very strong in a band south of the great ice sheets.  This wind blew the sand & silt into rolling drifts across Newton, Jasper, Pulaski, Fulton, White & Cass counties.  Such sandy dunes make a lot of land in our northern counties in need of irrigation for crop production in the summer.  These were & still are the haunts of Northern Pin Oak (also known as Hill’s Oak).  Dry, sandy savanna & prairie is its home.


A tree of these wind-blown dry, droughty, sandy dunes, mixed with Black Oak savannas of northern Indiana, Northern Pin Oak is an over-looked native tree.  Though farming has eradicated much Northern Pin Oak, this tree formed thickets, scrub & scattered trees on the prairie dunes & savannas.  In fact, this species, with Black Oak, formed a transition between the large prairies & the oak openings as one moved eastward from Jasper & White to Cass & Pulaski counties.  Very drought tolerant, Northern Pin Oak is so intolerant of sun that its own limbs will die off & shed if its own foliage shades it self.  Very fire tolerant, it is a substantial component of the sand savanna & prairie environment in northern Indiana & it usually found with Black Oak.  In fact many dunes that are labled purely Black Oak savannas contain much Northern Pin Oak, but they all just seemingly blend together.

It is also a component of the original “oak openings” throughout northern Indiana on typical loam & clay loam soils with bur, shingle, scarlet, white & black oak with hickories in that transition zone between largely beech-maple forests & the prairies to the west.  It also has an affinity for the gravelly, rather sandy slops of glacial kames (gravelly hills) & eskers (snake-like ridges of gravel & coarse materials that were deposited by streams of melt water within the ice sheet).  However, it seems to have issues with competition from Bur Oak in these areas, so is most common on the sandy dunes.


Vibrant in orange & scarlet fall color, this species has a nice form with broad crown & fairly short stature with a peak height of 50-60′, but may spread out nearly as much.  Its shiny foliage, fall color & decent form, as well as durability to droughty, coarse & hard, clayeye, dry soils has made it a bit more popular recently in the nursery trade.  It grows reasonably fast & for the first time, I saw it offered at a nursery in Lafayette this summer.  It doesn’t really need any irrigation in summer drought, even if planted on the driest gravelly soils.  The only issue is its self-pruning, as it sheds a log of snags & dead branches with age & tends to have quite a few dead branches in the crown as it matures.  However, this attribute made it an important nesting site for savanna-loving eastern bluebirds.  Before European settlement, bluebirds were THE savanna bird, loving grassland with oak openings & scattered trees.  The fire-scarred oaks with decay were perfect for cavity nesting.  Northern Pin Oak provides nice snags & cavities for this colorful native thrush.

Northern Pin Oak like to hold onto its leaves through winter, as dry, brown, crispy foliage.  Entire young trees will be clothed in foliage all winter, until pushed off in the spring.  Older trees with have a brown, dried foliage skirt on their lower branches.

For germination, this tree must have 95-100% light & rather bare, mineral soil with little competition.  It can contend with some little bluestem & dropseed grass competition, but cannot handle lots of vines, trees & plants crowding it.  It likes a fire regime to accomplish this, as it will even bud as a young tree after fires (as long as they are not overly frequent).







One Response to “Native Tree of the Week: Northern Pin Oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis)”

  1. Mary Anne Best says:

    we are blessed with two of these trees!!

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