A Publication of WTVP
Above: The giant oak tree on High Street in Peoria is among the region’s most beloved attractions. At 50 feet high, with a diameter of nearly 55 inches at its base and a spread of 110 feet, it has watched over the Illinois River Valley for hundreds of years. Photo by Greg Balzell

The fall is a great time to plan for future generations…by planting a native hardwood tree.

The white oak is the official state tree of Illinois. In 1908, the native oak was designated the state tree, but with so many oak tree species (25+), the white oak was selected by a special poll of schoolchildren in 1973. Connecticut and Maryland are the only other states designating the white oak as their state tree.

The Great White Oak
The Illinois Big Tree Register provides the dimensions of the largest tree species in the state. The largest white oak listed is located in Randolph County near Sparta, south of St. Louis. In 2012, it measured 18.8 feet in circumference—that’s approximately three men with outstretched arms wrapping around its trunk. It was 82 feet tall and the crown spread measurement was 122 feet. (The crown measures the width of the tree from branch tip to branch tip.)

Nearby Putnam County once had the largest white oak tree in Illinois, until it lost a large limb and gave up its reign to the tree in Randolph County. I talked to the tree’s private owner, who said its trunk measures 22 feet in circumference. The owner’s mother lived on the property in 1911 and remarked to her son that it was a large tree at that time. Located near Putnam County Junior High School along Route 89 between the small towns of McNabb and Magnolia, the tree is estimated to be between 225 and 275 years old. If you get a chance to go for a Sunday afternoon drive, take a look at this impressive tree. It should be easy to find.

Many of the massive oak trees you see in the City of Peoria and on Peoria Park District property are white oaks. They are well-adapted to our area and have been an important resource in the development of our state. Many decades ago, when hardwood trees seemed to be an unending resource, white oaks were used to build houses, barns, cabinets and furniture. White oak is strong and rot-resistant, a great source of food and shelter for insects and wildlife, and beautiful in the eyes of many.

The Competition
So where am I going with all this tree talk? We are losing our native hardwood trees; they are in decline on private property and in our public parks. Take a walk through Peoria Park District property along the Illinois River bluffs or in Jubilee State Park. You will see some large, impressive oak trees, but how many young white oaks do you see? I would venture to say… not many.

Much of our park property is being overtaken by fast-growing maple trees (silver and soft maple) or the invasive bush honeysuckle. Native oak trees have a difficult time competing for sunlight and getting established. And with deer populations increasing and oak acorns being a favorite food for them, the chances are even less for oak acorns to survive and sprout.

How many oak trees are planted on residential sites? Understandably, most homeowners want “quick” shade and hence, plant a maple or another fast-growing tree. But when you plant an oak tree, you are planting for future generations. It is a long-term investment. If you feel you need to plant a fast-growing tree, why not also plant a native hardwood tree? The fast-growing tree could then be removed once the hardwood tree was established. Hardwood trees will likely improve the value of your property as well.

A Bicentennial Offering
Illinois became a state on December 3, 1818, and in recognition of our state’s bicentennial anniversary, the Peoria County Farm Bureau is offering a free white oak tree to approximately 50 Peoria County elementary schools that participate in our Ag in the Classroom program. The tree will be three feet tall and in a three-gallon container.

The Farm Bureau is also offering three-foot and five-foot white oak trees to members this fall. The fall is a great time to plant a tree, as they are entering the winter dormant period and will have three or four months to establish their rooting system before the high demands of water and nutrients arrive in the spring.

Every day coming into work, I drive by a white oak that I have been watching grow for the past 20 years. As you make the turn off Nebraska onto Underhill Street to the Farm Bureau building, it is on private property just before turning into our parking lot. It’s on the left-hand side (east) and many of its branches overhang Underhill. It, too, was once just a small acorn. iBi