Please help us save our conjugal oak tree!!!
February 21, 2012 7:46 PM   Subscribe

Our conjugal oak tree is dying, and I'm devastated. Please help us save it!!!

My fiance proposed with a ring and a baby oak tree, and we're planning on using it in our wedding ceremony one year from now. Unfortunately it's half dead. Of course we can buy a new one, but I'm sentimental and would much prefer the original. You can see a picture here: As you can see, it's alive on the outside perimeter and kinda.... well, crunchy and brown in the middle. Oddly enough, there are new green shoots on the perimeter that look quite healthy. We've been keeping it in the pot with a bowl to catch the water, so it kinda sits in water most times. We water it once a week or so, whenever it seems dry, but it sits in water which is probably half the problem. Any advice from botanists/gardeners/tree enthusiasts would be GREATLY appreciated!! FWIW, we live in a temperate climate (San Jose, CA, USA). And, we keep it inside in indirect sunlight.
posted by luciddream928 to Home & Garden (15 answers total)
Response by poster: Sorry, here's a link to the tree.
posted by luciddream928 at 7:50 PM on February 21, 2012

Never raised a tree from this small, but the first thing that occurs to me is that it's looking pretty leggy. Pruning back a bit would help it get it's strength.
Sitting in water is a bad thing for an oak.
Cut off any dead bits to stop the rot from spreading.
Consider a different container. Trees need wide spaces, for the roots to spread out.
posted by Gilbert at 8:05 PM on February 21, 2012

If that is an oak tree, it cannot survive indoors. Deciduous trees require seasons, they need to lose their leaves every year and start again in the spring. Also, you cannot water a tree in the same way you might water other house plants.

When you see lovely indoor displays of bonsai trees of any sort, what you don't see is the other 364 days of the year when they are outside in the elements.

A tree will only grow in the right conditions, and what you described sounds like the perfect conditions to kill the tree.

Put it outside in a much much bigger pot and you might have a chance.
posted by markblasco at 8:07 PM on February 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: What you have there is some kind of native CA live oak. Which is great, because it is damn hard to kill. Even if all of its leaves were gone, if you gave it some water and sun it might bounce back!

That tree wants a larger pot (with good drainage!) and direct sun. It is trying, trying to get long enough that it can get to the sun, and it is going to put all of its energy into doing that.

It is an oak tree, so in a year it will be about the same size, but if you prune it back a bit, give it a larger pot- a 12+ in clay pot (choose a pretty one for the wedding!) would be a good idea-, and give it plenty of sun and water, it will likely be nice and bushy with some fresh growth by this time next year.
posted by rockindata at 8:07 PM on February 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

This is especially important to do ASAP, by the way- oaks do most of their growing in the spring.
posted by rockindata at 8:08 PM on February 21, 2012

Best answer: So, um, what kind of oak is it? The leaves don't exactly match up with anything I can find. They come closest to a chestnut oak. What's making my really curious are the multiple stems even on what appears to be the original plant; with a tree, you generally have a single stem, which becomes the trunk and then branches come directly off that trunk. What happens sometimes is that the central trunk gets damaged and then the root sends up multiple new shoots, hoping one of them will make it to trunk-hood and acorn-bearing. That's kind of what I'm wondering if is happening here. It is sometimes possible to cut back all shoots but the healthiest and train that one straight up--tie it to a stake. And either plant it in a larger pot outside or just in the ground outside. Oaks tend to put down long tap roots, so need lots of room down below.
posted by miss patrish at 8:09 PM on February 21, 2012

Ah, CA live oak! No wonder I'm not familiar with it (St. L MO here). Holy crap, some of the specimens on google are amazing! Good luck with it and with your impending marriage.
posted by miss patrish at 8:13 PM on February 21, 2012

Response by poster: Miss Patrish, it's a pin oak. Rockindata, you were right - it is native to CA : )

Thank you all so much for your suggestions! We have clay pots in the garage and I'll transplant it tomorrow. Question: what kind of soil should I use? We have potting soil for our container garden, is that OK?
posted by luciddream928 at 8:14 PM on February 21, 2012

Best answer: Are you sure it is a Pin Oak? There are roughly 27 species of oak native to California, and another 5 or so that are not native but found in the wild. None of them are typically called pin oaks. Also, neither tree typically called Pin Oak (both live in Eastern North America) has leaves that look anything like that.

Straight potting soil is going to be a little rich for your little tree. I would mix a bit in there to ensure that there is drainage and at least a little water retention, but for the most part I would use regular clayey, sandy Bay Area dirt- it is what they like!

Also, be careful to not contaminate your tree with stuff from oak woodlands nearby. Most oaks in CA are easily killed by a rapidly-spreading pathogen( Phytophthora ramorum). that causes Sudden Oak Death. If you have ever been to China Camp in Marin, you will know what it can do- dead oaks everywhere! Fortunately, you do not have a tan oak, which is the most vulnerable species.

Oh, and don't worry about the fact that it kinda looks like a bush when it is little. That's how your kind of oak rolls. When it is bigger it will sort out how it will grow, though it won't ever grow tall and straight like other kinds of oaks that you find in eastern North America. Most California oak grow wide and funky and awesome!
posted by rockindata at 8:36 PM on February 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

You don't need to prune it, especially because you obviously have no idea how to prune anything. If there is a part that is obviously dead, brown, dessicated and you can see the tissue is dry, then you can cut it off. Otherwise, leave it alone. Having dead tissue on there probably won't hurt it, because it's most likely the cultivation that has it stressed.

So if it's an oak native to your area then yes, leave it outside all year long, with plenty of sun. Try to find out exactly what species it is and it may help you know what requirements it may have. It looks like a Canyon Live Oak, but it's hard to tell from the photo. But most any oak will do okay in potting soil, with plenty of light, and moderate moisture. Don't let it get utterly dry, but don't keep it wet, either. I don't know that you need to move it into native soils until you're going to plant it; but when you do, clean off most of the potting soil, straighten the roots and bare-root it. Go to for info on planting (and pruning and mulching and more).
posted by Red Loop at 8:54 PM on February 21, 2012

Crunchy in the center with a perimeter of branches coming up around the sides? What that sounds like to me is this: The main stalk died off & the roots are trying again. Look up "sapsuckers." Plants, and trees especially, have specific growth habits. All I ever took was beginning botany and that was almost 20 years ago, but as I am recalling it, growth habit is essentially maintained by a hormonal balancing act between shoots & roots: Lose a shoot, and the resulting imbalance will prompt the roots to send up more shoots. This is why, when you prune plants, they generally respond by growing more leaves & branches. In the case of very heavily pruned trees --yes I AM looking at the crepe myrtle people out there-- it is common to see a lot of whippy boughs coming up directly from the base of the plant as a result of the loss of equilibrium. Reference again "sapsuckers."

But there's actually an ideal symmetry programmed into the plant, and THAT is controlled (in a lot of trees, but not all) through the leader shoot's apical bud. By leader, I mean, the shoot that has dominance. Usually trees start with one single shoot, and well, there's no question about who's dominant. The topmost bud on that shoot is the apical bud, and orders about growth patterns go hierarchically down from there. Now if you SNIP that bud (like with the crepe myrtle trees), or if it dies, suddenly there is room for competitors. Along with the aforementioned big push from the roots to reestablish parity. Let the random, rapid growth spurts begin!

So it sounds (& kind of looks, but it's hard to tell) to me like your leader died, and the roots are responding, as they are wont to do, by putting out some new nominees for leader. I would examine the shoots, pick the likeliest looking one (most vertical, strongest, that sort of thing), stake it to train it back to verticality, and then prune out all of the competitors.

I would also give some serious thought to those people who say an indoor pot is no place for an oak. I get that you probably want to take it with you if you move, but I think moving it outdoors so it gets a more natural cycle of weather & light would probably (not definitely!) be a good long term plan. Take into account the plants minimum and maximum temperature tolerances, of course.

Regarding how long it can stay in a pot: I've worked in garden centers. Root bound is certainly not ideal, and will definitely take its toll over time, but a plant can subsist for years in a fairly rootbound state. Subsist. Not thrive.
posted by Ys at 9:08 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can replant the tree in a larger pot, then bury that pot outside (or get a replacement and start out this way). It will look like you've planted the tree outside, but you'll be able to pull it out a year from now more easily. If you tell a good nursery what your plans are, they should have someone there who can give some tips for keeping it healthy.
posted by belau at 4:54 AM on February 22, 2012

Best answer: The greater problem with a root-bound plant is with species that become larger trees and develop girdling roots. They will have a permanently dysfunctional root system. Most young oaks have a serious taproot for a while, so it could be when you pull it out to plant it there's a taproot spiraling around the bottom of the pot and a more wimpy root system above, but I don't know how long it's been container-grown. If you pull it out of the pot and it's a really tight mass of roots packed in there, then you may need to repot it just to make it easier to cultivate until you plant it, but if it's still got some loose soil and it's only going to be a year longer then you should leave it alone (as long as the soil is decent). Potting up over and over usually just creates concentric rings of circling roots that are that much harder (or impossible) to straighten when it's time to plant.
And while ultimately you should probably get it down to one leader (unless maybe it's one of the shrub oaks that naturally clump), if it is stressed now it's better to leave as many leaves as possible because they are what produce food. The shoot/crown ratio is worked out by the tree. The idea of pruning to promote growth is generally not quite true and a little oversimplified.

One other thing to look out for: while it's hard to tell from the photo, it looks like that tree has smaller leaves in the center from when the tree was growing in full sun, and now it has larger leaves and more elongated growth, a common result from being in too-dark conditions. If you do move it outside, those shade leaves may fry in the short term if you put it in full sun, so find a middle ground at first, someplace with bright diffused light or only a few hours of direct sunlight. As days lengthen it should put out new leaves more sun-adapted.
posted by Red Loop at 5:27 AM on February 22, 2012

Oh, and the idea of putting the pot in the ground is good if you live somewhere that gets cold enough you need to insulate it, but otherwise you may just want to stick the bottom of the pot in the soil and let the roots grow out through the drain holes. You'll have to cut the roots later when you want to plant but it's easier to cut those sticking out the holes than messing with more circling roots.
posted by Red Loop at 5:30 AM on February 22, 2012

Miss Patrish, it's a pin oak. Rockindata, you were right - it is native to CA : )

Not a pin oak, they are deciduous and not native to California. It's a live oak of some type, impossible to tell what type at this age, because oaks are notoriously variable (and interbreed). At any rate, it should never sit in water, you should not prune it, except for the dead bits if you want, and it probably should be re-potted in a pot with good drainage and no fertilizer or rich soil or compost. I highly encourage you to keep it outside, away from hot sun or a reflective south wall. It's unlikely to get enough sun or humidity inside to thrive.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:04 PM on February 22, 2012

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