The Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii) is one of the most spectacular plants native to the Sierra Nevada to watch in the spring. After their leaves unfurl in shades of pink, red, and burgundy, they turn a bright green which could be where the term “spring green” came from. This burst of color is especially beautiful right after a rain: the bright green presents a dramatic contrast to the wet, dark bark of the trunk and branches. The leaves mature to deep green and very large with generous lobes, tipped with a bristles.
The stretching, waif-like trees that develop when growing close to other tall trees don’t captivate me as much as those that are given space to develop the massive trunks that support broad, rounded canopies. These magnificent oaks provide beautiful, dappled shade, and due to the high branching pattern, under a Black Oak is a perfect spot to place a sitting area. Of course, as with all of our sensitive, native Oaks, it is important to minimize any disturbance of the roots. The natural mulch from the leaves that drop in the fall makes a lovely surface on which to set a couple of comfortable chairs.
For spring color or additional interest under a Black Oak, consider planting low-growing natives that require little to no supplemental irrigation once established. Some of my favorites are creeping Oregon Grape (Berberis repens or Berberis nervosa), Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva ursi), Pacific Coast iris (Iris douglasiana PCH Hybrids), Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea), and Alumroot (Heuchera species). Some fabulous, larger plants that are compatible with Oaks are Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum) and Coffeeberry (Rhamnus ilicifolia and Rhamnus crocea). Place the plants along the edge of the canopy, at least 10 feet away from the trunk, where they will receive some sun exposure.
If you aren’t blessed with a Black Oak on your property and you’d like to plant one, look for a spot that will be shaded from the afternoon sun by either larger trees or a building until the tree reaches about 20 feet in height. The north side of a building is frequently a good spot. Black Oaks are generally slow-growing, but well worth the wait. They provide year-round interest and support a great variety of native wildlife by providing food, places for nesting and food storage.