Roots and Shoots: Big Trees

You’ve probably heard the modern proverb that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago and the next best time is today.

This is the red oak in my yard that I'm glad I didn't destroy by trying to transplant it 13 years ago. Photo by P. Doan

This is the red oak in my yard that I’m glad I didn’t destroy by trying to transplant it 13 years ago. (Photo by P. Doan)

Depending on the type — maple, oak, birch, poplar, ash or any other native to our area — a tree planted in 2003 might have grown 1 to 2 feet per year. That means a 6-foot sugar maple would now be nearly 30 feet tall.

There is a red oak in a field in my landscape that grew from an acorn. I was inexperienced with trees when we settled in the Highlands and I wanted to transplant it. The oak was on a high spot and I was concerned it would shade the vegetable garden.

A knowledgeable person informed me that, because oaks develop deeper tap roots than most trees, it would die if I tried to move it. So it stayed. I also learned that oaks grow slowly and that, by the time it was shading the garden, I would probably not be tending the garden any longer. I watched over the years as deer rubbed their antlers on the trunk, leaving marks but not damaging it.

I also became fascinated with petioles, the botanical term for the stalk that connects a leaf to a branch. I noticed the oak kept its leaves much longer than other types of trees, sometimes late into winter. This is called marescence, and there are various explanations for why it occurs. I like the one that posits oaks protect their buds by keeping the leaves longer to discourage browsing deer — more evidence that trees are smart!

If you’re ready to plant a tree, here are suggestions. I’m going to stick with native hardwoods, not including pine and spruce or woody plants.


Within the Acer family, there are 13 species native to the U.S. and seven that are regionally native. The best known is the sugar maple, which is the centerpiece for all of the winter festivities that demonstrate how maple syrup is produced from sap. The sugar maple is also dominant in many local forests and beloved for its colorful fall leaves, on display now.

It’s worth it to get to know your maples and distinguish the silver maple, red maple and striped maple. Each has compound, lobed leaves that resemble hands.

The Norway maple is an introduced tree that was planted instead of native maples for decades in cities and developments because it tolerates a wide range of soil and water conditions. However, as has been the case of many species that we have taken outside of their native ecosystem, Norway maples are prolific seed distributors that are spreading into New York forests, too, disrupting diversity. The roots are shallow and prevent other plants from growing around them, and the wood is weak, making branches susceptible to breaking during storms. Best to avoid.


In the Queurcus line, the most common locally are red oak and white oak. Oaks are more slow-growing among the hardwood trees and are long-lived. They fill many niches in ecosystems — as habitat for wildlife and birds and food sources for insects and the wildlife that feed off acorns.

In The Nature of Oaks, Douglas Tallamy shares his observations and experiences with an oak in his yard. Doing a deep dive into a species brings intimacy and connection that can change the way you think about a lot of things in nature.

(The Tree Book, by Michael Dirr and Keith Warren, and anything by Diana Beresford-Kroeger can also broaden your knowledge.)

It may be more true for oaks that the best time to plant was 20 years ago, but it’s well worth it to start now as a gesture of hope and a gift to others.

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