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An ode to our native oaks

by Stephanie Robinson

October 11, 2021

Out of all the wonderful trees that make up our urban forest in Sacramento, native oaks hold a special place in our hearts. Ask any staff member what their favorite tree is, and chances are many will mention the valley oak. Native plants are trending, and for good reason – they are so important to our natural ecosystems. But native trees, and native oaks in particular, carry the biggest impact.

This Oaktober, we're celebrating the oaks that are native to the Sacramento region – the valley oak (Quercus lobata), blue oak (Quercus douglasii), and interior live oak (Quercus wislizeni). These majestic trees provide more benefits than any other tree that grows locally. Thanks to donors and volunteers like you, every year we plant 3,200 native trees throughout the region, both in reforestation sites and at places like homes, parks, and schools.

Why native oaks?

Oaks are a keystone species, which means they essential to our ecosystem, supporting thousands of other species that wouldn't be here without them. California oaks have relationships with hundreds of vertebrate species like birds and mammals and thousands of insects. These animals evolved alongside oaks and depend on them for food, shelter, and places to raise their young.

If you're lucky enough to have native oaks in your community, you might get to spot some of the creatures that make a feast of acorns or oak-dwelling insects – squirrels, acorn woodpeckers, western bluebirds, and hummingbirds are among the dozens that are commonly seen in Sacramento. They are a haven for pollinators like moths and butterflies, and in some circumstances, provide food for bees as well.

Oaks' environmental benefits go beyond supporting biodiversity and wildlife habitat. As large trees, native oaks are powerhouses when it comes to improving air quality, cooling the valley, and capturing and filtering stormwater. Valley oaks in particular are our carbon champions – sequestering more carbon in their wood than any other tree in the region.

As water becomes more of a concern for Californians, oaks remind us that they are perfectly suited to our dry summers. Native plants are well-adapted to our arid climate, and while they'll need some water to get established in their first few years or during historically dry conditions, they are incredibly drought tolerant.

Aside from the proven scientific benefits of oaks, there is something special about them that is hard to put a finger on. They are beautiful, majestic trees, and resilient too. Worldwide, they have provided food, medicine, and inspiration for people for thousands of years. Acorns are a staple food for indigenous people of California, who process acorns into a nutritious flour.

Oak and native plant resources

Living Among the Oaks
If you are lucky enough to have native oaks on your property, check out this guide from the late Doug McCreary that has suggestions for their care, companion plantings, and other wonderful information. We are so grateful to Doug for all of his work in protecting and restoring California's native oaks.

Oak Woodland Fires
Learn how wildfires are affecting oak woodlands, and how to assess burned trees for likelihood of survival.

Calscape Garden Planner

Thinking about converting your lawn to a water wise native garden? Find readymade garden plans and lists of native plants from your area with this handy tool. Be sure to take precautions around any existing trees.

Hands-on Activities for Kids
Check out our Seed to Seedling curriculum for lesson plans, activities, and resources for K-6. Educators are also welcome to sign up their classrooms to grow acorns into oak seedlings. Kits are provided free of charge. 

Secrets of the Oak Woodlands: Plants and Animals among California's Oaks by Kate Marianchild

Oaks in the Urban Landscape: Selection, Care, and Preservation