Since entering the U.S. from Eastern Asia in the 1920s and especially since its promotion as the ultimate wildlife tree in the last few decades, I doubt there has been a more widely planted tree by outdoor enthusiasts than Sawtooth Oak (Quercus acutissima). It is easy to see the tree’s appeal. Sawtooth Oak grows quickly relative to other oaks, rates of 3-4’ per year in youth are not uncommon. It bears fruit at a very young age, as soon as five-seven years from seed, and produces a heavy crop almost every year, unlike many native oak species. Mature specimens are also mostly pest/disease free and very attractive, reaching 40-60’ in height with sweeping, wide-spreading branches, and deep, furrowed bark.
While it seems that I just described the ideal wildlife tree, and Sawtooth Oak can indeed be a worthy inclusion to your property, it is not perfect. All too often I see landowners and hunting lease holders plant solely Sawtooths as a part of their mast-producing tree strategy. As in other areas of life, avoiding monocultures and adding a little diversity to your wildlife tree portfolio is beneficial. Keep that, and the following lessons I’ve learned the hard way, in mind when you consider adding these wildlife attracting trees to your property.
- Acorns Drop Early – Sawtooth Oaks produce all their acorns very early in the season, beginning in September. Conversely, most of our native oaks drop their mast (a fancy word for tree fruit) during the winter months that comprise our main hunting season, November-January. So, while Sawtooth Oak is an excellent wildlife attractor and most any creature will readily gobble up their acorns, if you plant them to hunt around or provide a critical winter food source, you’ll likely be disappointed.
- Invasive Potential – As Sawtooth Oak is non-native, very adapted to the Southeastern U.S. climate, and produces literal tons of acorns each year, the species has the potential to become a nuisance invasive. I’ve visited several sites over the last few years that had a couple of large Sawtooth Oaks planted in areas mostly excluded from wildlife pressure. I was surprised to see small Sawtooth saplings popping up everywhere. It was eerily reminiscent of other nuisance trees like Chinaberry and Camphor. Though I don’t think Sawtooth Oak will ever be a problem on the level of Chinese Tallow or Cogon Grass, it’s wise to use caution with plants that have invasive potential.
- Less Nutritious Acorns – Sawtooth Oak acorns are heavily browsed, but it’s not necessarily because they’re extremely nutritious. A study from the 1960s compared the nutritional quality of Sawtooth Oak acorns to 8 common native oak species and found Sawtooth lagged the natives by a significant margin in all macronutrients measured: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. This finding suggests that, while Sawtooth Oak is an excellent wildlife attractor, if your goal is growing higher quality game animals and providing valuable nutrients to get them through the winter when wildlife forages are scarce, Sawtooth Oak should be a minor component of your strategy, not the endgame.
- Longevity – The jury is still out on longevity. However, anecdotal evidence from around the Southeast suggests that Sawtooth may not be as long-lived as some of our native oaks. This could be due to several factors. First, as a rule, extremely fast-growing trees tend to be shorter lived due to weaker branching structure, less dense wood, and other factors. Think of the tortoise and the hare analogy. The quickest do not always win the race. Second, Sawtooth Oak did not hold up particularly well during Hurricane Michael and other strong storms. Their growth habit (heavy, wide spreading branches low to the ground) is not conducive to major wind resistance. This is to be expected as Sawtooth Oak is native to areas that do not experience tropical wind events and likely evolved accordingly.
I am by no means suggesting that you shouldn’t add Sawtooth Oak to your property in the hopes of encouraging wildlife. There are few trees available that do a better job of that. I am suggesting that Sawtooth Oak should be a small part of your larger overall planting strategy and you should keep in mind the potential drawbacks to the species. Plant mostly native oaks, allow Sawtooth Oak to be merely a supplement to them, and I think you’ll be pleased with the results! Putting all your acorns in one basket is rarely a good strategy.
For more information on Sawtooth Oak, other wildlife forage and attractant strategies, or any other natural resource, agronomic or horticultural topic, please reach out to your local UF/IFAS Extension Office!