Plant of the Week: Bur Oak

Photo by Friends of the High LineThe male flowers of the bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) grow in long catkins that drape from the branches. Photo by Friends of the High Line

The High Line’s planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today.

This week we share one of our gardeners’ current favorites with you.

Bur oak, Quercus macrocarpa, is one of North America’s most majestic oaks. It’s also the most widely distributed and ranges farthest north of all the native oaks. At the southern end of its range, it can grow up to 160 feet tall, but in its northernmost habitats and at higher altitudes it may grow to a mere shrubby 16 feet. On the High Line, five small bur oaks are aptly situated in the Chelsea Grasslands.

Quercus macrocarpa is a pioneer species – one of the first trees to take hold in grasslands that are undisturbed by fire. If left alone, these oak savannas populate into oak woodlands and eventually become mixed species woodlands, a process of succession that is responsible for many of the forests of the Midwestern United States. Oak savannas attracted another sort of pioneer to this region in the 19th century. European settlers favored oak trees for lumber and fuel, and the acorns made good forage for livestock.

Though we rarely think of grand oak trees as having flowers, Quercus macrocarpa is blooming right now on the High Line, much to the frustration of anyone with spring tree pollen allergies. The female flowers are small and inconspicuous, but the male flowers grow in long catkins that drape from the branches. Allergy sufferers can take comfort in the fact that oak trees are an important pollen source for honeybees, and the flowers eventually grow into some of the largest acorns of any oak species, complete with collars of green "bur" around the caps.

Quercus macrocarpa is located on the High Line between West 18th and West 19th Streets.

Download our May Bloom Guide.

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line’s most important gardening projects — become a member of Friends of the High Line today!

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