An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

May 25, 2012

Quercus phellos, Bad Landscaping and Eminent Domain

Willow oak (Quercus phellos) is my second favorite oak, live oak (Q. virginiana) being my first.  I like the tree for several reasons, primarily because they do so very well here, thriving in our heat, humidity and too-much-too-little rainfall, plus they are salt tolerant.  Willow oaks grow faster than other oaks and are often listed as reaching 60-80' tall by half that in width, with a trunk that can get 3-6' wide. However, I have seen more than a few that are every bit of 100' or taller, and that would take several long-limbed men to encircle.  When young they have the kind of uniform upright pyramidal shape that landscape architects dream of.  Around here they are widely planted, often in rows and are a popular street tree, which given their ultimate size may not be a wise choice (more on that later). 

One of the best places to see willow oaks locally is on the campus of Old Dominion University, which is a frequent biking destination for my son and I.
Quercus phellos (10)

Quercus phellos (9)

Quercus phellos (11)

Quercus phellos (5)

Quercus phellos (8)

Quercus phellos (7)

There is one specific tree on the edge of campus that prompted me to write this post.  For all the years I have lived here, I have just noticed this tree recently, because all the buildings (but one) around it have been razed.  Looking at its fat round crown, you can tell it grew up without any competition.  Once the hodgepodge of strip clubs, storefront churches, bungalows, and workshops that made up this neighborhood were gone, this magnificent tree could be seen.

Quercus phellos (3)

Quercus phellos (2)

Quercus phellos (4)

Quercus phellos

The reason all the surrounding buildings were razed, was to make room for the expansion of Old Dominion through public/private partnerships.  Many of the former property owners were simply bought out, while others had to have theirs taken through eminent domain.  While I am all for a greater university community, surrounded by attractive public spaces, I am sure I would sing a different tune if it was my property being taken, whether the compensation offered was fair or not.  The tree I have become so smitten with abuts one of the few remaining hold-outs, solidly opposed to having their property taken.

Eminent Domain

Just behind the Central Radio Co., on land already bought, a new apartment community has been built specifically to house students of the university.  It stands in marked contrast to the older homes and businesses that are just across the street and outside of the university's plans.  Now here comes the bad landscaping part from the title (I'll bet you thought I would never get there).  The landscaping was installed by one of the area's largest, oldest and most well-known firms.  You would think that someone at a company of that stature would know how big Quercus phellos can get.  If not, they could have easily seen the one growing next to Central Radio.  And don't you think the landscape architect would have bothered look up before he chose to plant a dozen willow oaks underneath substantial power lines?
Quercus phellos (6)

Maybe the landscaping company holds the pruning contract also.  Either way, it will be guaranteed work for someone.


  1. Geez, Louise. The wide angle shot reminds me of a large white oak. Most of the willow oaks I've seen remind me of pin oaks. As most of them are young and stunted because of our soils(when I was in Oklahoma). It seems red clay soils restrict nutrient uptake.

    I planted trees under power lines once. Once. Now they are dehorned.

  2. Those are such beautiful oaks. So very grand. It is a shame when anyone plants tall trees under power lines. Such a waste but perhaps people don't think long term when designing. A big problem.

  3. Enjoying this post. Getting me started on trees and (bad) landscaping (especially from Norfolk's oldest companies) will keep me going for hours. As much as I bore of the newly-planted Q. phellos -its pyramidal shape early on a turnoff I see as unnatural and uptight whitey looking- I love the specimens you photod that are much older. The one on hampton Blvd you show is one I look at daily and wax poetic on. I fear the University will end up chopping it down to plant either, by our city's oldest nursery 1) a group of -maybe 10-12 in a small space- new pyramidal Q. phellos, or 2) a group of even drier/duller-looking, with no real character with age, Zelkovas.
    Because there are so many Q phellos and Zelkovas planted here i often opt for Q virginiana to my customers, who wholeheartedly embrace them. The City of Norfolk, who I participated with a few years ago on reworking the tree pallet of downtown Norfolk because of the severely ailing and poorly selected Platinus X acer., is finally coming to its senses and replanting Waterside Drive with Q virginiana (should have been done 30 years ago but our local oldest nursery pushed for London Plane there and ignoring anything naturally or natively growing here). This planting will do much for the general appearance of our beautiful city, greater recognition of who we are ecologically and topographically, add sustainability and may do more to increase tourism there.
    Thanks Les, and please help me stop writing on this.

  4. willow oak is one of the most common trees in charlotte, and the streets in many of the nicest neighborhoods are lined with it. i have a little bit more fondness for white oaks because i love the bark and the look of the larger leaves (though willow oak composts better), but both are susceptible to canker worm. is that a problem where you are? you got some great shots from old dominion...those are some fine examples of that tree.

  5. Live Oak is a tree I dream of having. I bet that those losing property have this tree on a hit list. Industrial strength RoundUp anyone? Just kidding as a tree lover myself, I would cringe at the thought of this beauty wilting in the hot sun.

    We have big street tree problems too with Norway Maple and Sycamores. The tree's roots tear up concrete walks, sewers and asphalt. They crack house foundations and in the end, the trees fall to all the infrastructure repair that results. I am sure I will find your post on 'more on that' interesting and also sure I will agree with your remarks on the subject.

    Thanks for your great comment on my post. You hit on two points that I was afraid to note, but my reply to your comment is like a post itself. I just need a little push to expand on two controversial points.

  6. Maybe there is a plan to move the power lines underground? Right. Like that's going to happen.

    The city should get it's money back, and replace the trees before they get too big.

  7. Willow Oak is not as common as Quercus laurifolia, Laurel Oak further down the coast in the Cape Fear area. I like both but, but like yourself, prefer Live Oak. (Nothing quite like an old one covered in Resurrection Fern- Polypodium polypodioides- and Spanish Moss. I planted a Live Oak in the back after my father died and am surprised at how fast it has grown.) The trees you show planted beneath the power lines will probably be crowned in 10 years. This practice has contributed greatly to the demise of so many of the Laurel Oaks in our area. Crepe Myrtles might have been a better choice unless the local power company has the foresight to start putting lines underground. Ours, Progress Energy does not despite having to come out and repair them every time the wind blows.

  8. I just love those big trees. Very refreshing.

  9. Hi Les, that's not just bad landscping, it verges on criminal - the potential damage those trees will cause to surrounding buildings, let alone the power lines, it beggars belief. Beautiful trees, but clearly ones that need to be planted in the right place, and preferably be allowed to grow to full stature and enjoyed for what they are rather than being treated like a temporary landscaping option. Ridiculous.

  10. Those are spectacular trees. And it is amazing how dumb someone was to miss what is right in front of them to let them know what to expect down the road. Might as well laugh because tears will come eventually.

  11. Loved the beginning of your post, hated the ending!

  12. I have the 'after' photo of that street right here in Alexandria. I will post a link in a few days.

  13. Les,
    We had a landscape architect do the same thing here in Peterbrough a couple of years ago. It is hard to believe we paid someone to do this. What is even more surprising is that we had a major ice storm 6 months earlier and lost power (due to tree limbs down over power lines) for 2 weeks. Excellent, but frustrating post. That mature oak is magnificent. Thanks.

  14. Beautiful photos of magnificent oaks! We are lucky to have Q. agrifolia here. A nearby town also has the problem of a university eating up the surrounding neighborhood--not bars or strip clubs, but rather modest craftsman homes and small, now-empty factories. Interesting to find it happening elsewhere.

    Whoever made the decision to plant those babies under the power lines should be thoroughly spanked.

  15. Maybe (hopefully) there is a plan to put the utilities underground in the next 5-10 years??? Surely they knew better!

  16. I like Willow Oak. That's what I chose for my front lawn. I thought it was important to plant one noble tree that would last to another generation. It's in the middle of the lawn and there are no powerlines on my side, but if it gets THAT big it will certainly dwarf my house. Of course, the oak might actually outlive the house, which itself is nothing special. I have noticed my Willow Oak really starting to have the nice pyramidal "young tree" shape just this year. Before that it seemed like a stretched out gangly teenager. I hope it someday achieves the rounded crown of maturity.

  17. Greggo,
    Looking at the map of where they are happy, you look a little out of their zone.

    I not sure, but I think in many cases it is not a matter of thinking, but a case of not caring.

    Lately I have seen the city go back to more Live Oaks, which pleases me, as well as using more Ginkgoes, which also pleases me. I too hope that once ODU gets its hands on Central Radio, which seems inevitable, they might spare that remarkable tree.

    The main problem we have on Willow Oaks here are Red Oak Worms, a gruesome looking littel creature. I also have trouble with brown scale on the one in my yard.

    We do not have too many Norways here, which from what I have read we should be grateful. You are welcome for the comments, you insightful post inspired my words.

    One could only hope the power lines should go underground, but maybe I will win the lottery too. You would think in a city prone to hurricanes, that all powerlines should go underground, but no.

    Laurel Oaks are indeed a nice choice too. Live Oaks do well here, but are at the northern limit of their happy place. I moved here from Charleston, so I miss those specimens. Crapes are a very good choice here, but the city will no longer plant them, because they have already planted tens of thousands and are trying to avoid a monoculture along the streets.

    I glad you enjoyed the photos.

    Yes it is criminal. Maybe I could make a citizen's arrest.

    I know, it floors me that people do not consider how big something will get. It is especially galling when "professionals" do it.

    I will try to balance future posts better.

    I will look forward to it.

    As much as I love large trees. I think I would rather see none, than any planted in the wrong spot.

    I will leave the spanking to you, but you have my full support.

    Emily Rose,
    One can only hope.

    You win points for planting a noble tree for future generations to enjoy.