Updated on June 03, 2024

How do animals in our wild kingdom continue to thrive? With the support of native plants, such as bur oak trees, a keystone species in the eastern and central U.S. Learn why this species is vital to wildlife and how you can help by planting native plants in your backyard.

large burr oak tree

All about bur oaks

Bur oak trees span between Ohio and Nebraska. They grow up to 100 feet high and can live for 1,000 years. These hearty trees are tolerant to both drought and fire, allowing them to live on the edge of woodlands and grasslands. The bur oak gets its name from the acorns it produces with a burry fringe.

Protecting bur oaks

Bur oaks are a keystone species, a plant that many animals rely on for food.

“It’s the biggest, most dominant tree of the forest so it sets the tone and structure of the forest,” said James Locklear, director of conservation at Lauritzen Gardens. “It holds up all the ecology locally, both plants and animals.”

man collecting acorns from tree

James Locklear, director of conservation at Lauritzen Gardens, collecting acorns.

Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha, Nebraska, is working to regenerate the oak woodland and protect the important bur oak as many of its stands (areas of similar trees) have diminished.

“Sometimes oaks exist in parks and foot traffic can be too much,” Locklear said. “It can impact the soil and impede the roots from taking up water. Managing the environment around the oaks is the best thing we can do.”

The Lauritzen team is planting trees back into the garden, with more than 300 bur oak seedlings planted over 100 acres. They’re also working to collect acorns from very drought tolerant bur oaks and establishing conservation growth. This helps protect the species in case they are lost to various environmental factors.

collecting burr oak acorns

Why are bur oaks important to wildlife?

While bur oaks’ acorns serve as a food source for animals such as squirrels and turkeys, the tree’s impact on wildlife doesn’t stop there.

neotropical song bird on branch

Take neotropical songbirds — birds that winter in the Caribbean or Central America and migrate to the northern U.S. or Canada to breed. The birds travel through the bur oak’s territory, looking for food sources along the way. Birds come through just as bur oaks sprout new leaves. These leaves attract caterpillars — a bird’s favorite snack.

“This helps fuel the bird’s migration from the Caribbean up into Canada,” Locklear said. “Trees such as bur oaks and other native trees are really important not only for the creatures that live here all the time, but the ones that are passing through.”

In addition, bur oaks provide homes for many birds such as the Baltimore oriole, wood pewee and phoebe, all which need a good quality oak woodland for their habitat.

How you can help by planting native species

With their towering height and large span, a bur oak might not be the ideal choice for the average homeowner to plant in their backyard. However, consider other native plants. Your local wildlife can greatly benefit when you plant native species, and you’ll enjoy having a plant that’s already adapted to your area.

“If you’re a homeowner and you’re trying to manage your land in a sustainable way, using plants that are native to the area means that they’re adapted to local growing conditions, particularly the amount of precipitation and annual rainfall,” Locklear said.

purple flowering tree in a backyard

Native plants are already adapted to local pests and diseases. This means you’ll be able to use less pesticide, less fertilizer and put fewer chemicals into the environment. Plus, you’ll see more local animals benefitting from your native plants.

When we think of the wild kingdom, we may first think of the animals that call it home. But bur oaks and other native plants help support these wild animals so they can continue to thrive for years to come.

Learn how to grow your own wildlife garden.


Images courtesy of Lauritzen Gardens

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