Add colour to your spring and fall landscape with Majestic Skies northern pin oak – an ideal shade tree

Showing off with brick red leaves in early spring.

Erl Svendsen
Saskatchewan Perennial Society

I spent most of my childhood in places where the fall canvas was painted with bright splashes of reds and oranges with a few daubs of yellow. The prairie region is just the opposite – a sea of yellows with occasional, and somewhat short-lived oranges and reds. Majestic Skies northern pin oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis ‘Bailskies’) can help change that.

Part of the problem is that there are relatively few hardy and attractive landscape worthy tree species available on the prairies. Most have been introduced from other parts of the world. There are a few native species (green ash, bur oak, American elm), but even these were not widespread across the prairies originally and come with a host of insect pests and diseases. The Western Nursery Growers Group recognized these problems and the risk our urban landscape faces with the introduction of just a single pest or disease: bronze birch borer, emerald ash borer, Dutch elm disease, fire blight and black knot, to name a few. For example, only two years ago, Saskatoon lost many of its Mancana and black ash to the cottony psyllid combined with an unfavourable winter.  The Group’s plan was to test new cultivars and species in four location representing the major climatic and soil zones across the region. They named their program Prairie T.R.U.S.T (Testing of Rural and Urban Shade Trees)*. To receive a Recommended rating, a tree must be hardy, have high to complete resistance to insect pests and disease, and be adapted to a wide range of Prairie soils. And not only this, but it must be good looking to as well!

One of their Recommended cultivars across all test sites is Majestic Skies northern pin oak. This is an outstanding tree for many reasons. The show starts in spring as pointy-tipped, lobed leaves emerge brick red, gradually shifting to a glossy dark green. In the fall, they transform again to become a resplendent red, contrasting nicely with their surrounding landscape. Like other oaks (e.g. bur oak), their flowers and acorns are not particularly noteworthy (except when in contact with your lawn mower). After the leaves take their final bow in the fall, the furrowed grey bark and silvery branches add attractive dimensions to the winter scene.

Northern pin oak is no shrinking violet – at maturity it can reach 18 metres (60 feet) in height by 14 metres (45 feet) wide with a pyramid-oval canopy. Majestic Skies has straighter and more even sized branches than its native North American kin, making for a relatively uniform canopy.  Its size and shape make it an ideal shade tree, even without its bright spring and fall colour display! But, because of its mature size, take care not to plant it too close to your house or under powerlines. As it grows, remove the lower branches to allow people to walk underneath without threat of losing an eye or their sunhat. Plant it in full sun to partial shade in deep well-drained soil. Although drought tolerant, it prefers evenly moist soil. It is not too particular to soil type, but in very alkaline soils, leaves may become chlorotic (yellow with green veins).  Because of its size and adaptability to Prairie conditions, you can grow it as a specimen tree for shade, massed in a larger landscape (parks, acreages), as part of a shelterbelt to control wind and reduce noise, or in a wildlife planting. It has a medium growth rate and should live for at least a century – you’re planting it as much for yourself as for your children and grandchildren.

*Visit the Prairie T.R.U.S.T website ( to see all recommended trees from their trial for your region.

Erl gardens in Saskatoon and tweets about it on occasion @ErlSv.

This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (SPS; ). Check our website or Facebook page ( All Saskatchewan Perennial Society events are on hold until further notice.