Northern Pin Oak – Shooting for the Sky

By Rick Durand

Rick Durand spent most of his life in Manitoba but moved to West Kelowna, B.C. in 2013 to work for Bylands Nurseries. He continues to work on developing new prairie hardy trees, shrubs, roses and perennials. Rick Durand developed and leads the largest Dutch elm disease research program in Canada

There are eleven native oaks in Canada. The northern pin oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis) is a member of the red oak family and has the distinguishing feature of bristle-tipped leaves and spectacular fall colour. The Canadian native range of northern pin oak is limited to the upland (less fertile areas) around Lake Erie in southern Ontario and a thin line along the Canada-United States border west of Lake Superior. In the United States, the northern pin oak extends into uneven portions of ten Midwestern states.

I have been breeding prairie-hardy trees for over 35 years, and in the early 1990’s I wondered if I could develop a northern pin oak adapted to the high pH soils of prairie Canada. I visited the pressed plant collection at the Claude Garton Herbarium at Lakehead University (my alma mater), and located the most northern native stand collection of northern pin oak from Northwestern Ontario. In August 1996, I travelled to this area and collected budwood from one tree displaying the best crown form and chlorosis resistance. I returned home to my farm outside of Portage la Prairie, excited to bud this clone, then realized that I had a compatibility problem! The only oak rootstock I had for budding (type of grafting) was bur oak, a member of the white oak family that is highly adapted to prairie soils. Oaks from the red oak family that includes northern pin oak were not supposed to be budded onto white oak rootstocks. Since I had no alternative, I budded the northern pin oak on to the bur oak rootstock. To my delight, some of the northern pin oaks budded onto bur oak was successful and flourished.

I evaluated this clone for several years and named it Shooting Star, after the leaves that have sharp radiating tips. Shooting Star (Quercus ellipsoidalis ‘DurMarg’) flourishes across the prairies including Winnipeg (zone 3), and even in Saskatoon (zone 2). This regal oak matures at about 10 metres high and wide , when grown in an open space. The foliage is a shiny, dark green in the summer and turns to a very deep purple colour in October.

Another northern pin oak budded on bur oak was later introduced in the United States called Majestic Skies (Q. ellipsoidalis ‘Bailskies’). This cultivar is 20% larger than Shooting Star. The leaves of Majestic Skies are much more cut-leaf and provides outstanding texture and the fall colour is a beautiful red colour. Majestic Skies fall colour appears two weeks later than Shooting Star and therefore is slightly less cold hardy. Both Shooting Star and Majestic Skies have leaves that turn a medium brown colour in early winter and stay on the branches all winter until in early spring when the new growth pushes them off the tree. Both tree cultivars are tolerant to the urban environment

Over the years, researchers have also tried budding northern pin oak onto red oak family rootstocks such as northern red, northern pin and scarlet oaks. In all cases, the successful budded trees on these red oak family rootstocks performed poorly growing in the high alkaline (high pH) prairie soils. The tree growers for the prairie region have gone back using bur oak as the rootstock of choice.

You may be wondering where you can buy Shooting Star or Majestic northern pin oaks? There are a few large independent retail centres that sell these two cultivars in limited numbers.

For ratings on these oaks and other trees go to www.prairietrees.ca

Published: November 2022 – First posted in the MMGA newsletter in September 2017 this article is re-posted here because it would otherwise be lost as the issue is no longer accessible online.