Although nothing can replace bur oak as the king of Nebraska’s oak trees, chinkapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) is definitely a tree that should be planted more throughout the state and central Great Plains region. Chinkapin oak has a wide native range and is relatively abundant in the woodlands of southeast Nebraska where it can grow to over 70 feet tall. Under cultivation the tree can be expected to reach a rounded height of 40 to 50 feet growing at a rate of one to two feet per year. Chinkapin oak gets its name from its narrow, serrated leaves that somewhat resemble those of chestnut (the word chinkapin refers to trees in the chestnut family). Although not considered spectacular for fall color, the leaves do turn a nice soft yellow.
An important advantage of chinkapin oak is its tolerance of alkaline soils. In fact, the tree is often found growing on limestone bluffs where little else will grow. Thus, even on the high pH soils so common in Nebraska, the tree’s foliage will remain a dark, glossy green throughout the growing season. Once established, chinkapin oak can tolerate significant drought as well as the saturated soils of over-irrigated lawns. Other advantages include the tree’s strong branching structure, its resistance to storm damage and its ability to live for decades when properly cared for.
Although still relatively uncommon in the nursery trade, chinkapin oak is becoming more available in Nebraska nurseries every year. In addition, NSA offers seedlings grown from native trees. For those with a little more patience, chinkapin oak can be easily started from seed. Acorns mature from late August through September and they are immediately ready to germinate when they fall to the ground. In fact, the acorn will send out its first roots within a few days after sowing in the fall. Be sure to protect the seeds over the winter from hungry animals by covering with a permeable material such as window screen or wire mesh. The covering should be removed the following spring (by late April) before the above-ground stem begins to emerge.