When people think of the oak tree, they think of a sturdy evergreen tree that cuts a fine and powerful figure and is also easy on the eye. Be that as it may, not all oak trees are evergreen. In fact, the term oak describes hundreds of species of trees that fall under the genus Quercus and vary wildly both in appearance and characteristics.
So how would you go about identifying your oak tree? More crucially, which oak tree is the right one to cast a pleasant shade on your garden and act as a source of sweet memories for your family?
How to Identify your Oak?
To the untrained eye, all trees look almost exactly the same. While that may be true, the oak tree has distinct features that set it apart from other trees. The following features help you recognize an oak tree by just looking at it.
- Oak Tree Leaves
The leaves of the oak tree have lobes that sometimes look like fingers sticking out of it. The underside of the leaf might have nodes made by insects. These are harmless to the tree and don’t impact its growth. Oak leaves usually fall during October and November each year.
- Oak Tree Flowers
While oaks do in fact flower, those blooms are not as colorful or bright as other trees. Oak flowers come in two varieties. The male flower looks like a catkin with the same color as the leaves. It blossoms early as soon as the budding leaves sprout. The female flower appears much later and is usually surrounded by spikes for protection.
- Oak Tree Fruits
While valued by people and animals alike, acorns are the fruits that come out of oak trees. The whole acorn is in fact the seed that will sprout in the right conditions and turn into an oak tree. Oaks produce acorns during the summer months. The acorn’s maturity and sprouting time vary depending on whether the parent oak is either red or white.
What’s the Difference between the Red and White Oak?
The mighty oak has influenced cultures and imaginations with its majestic endurance for millennia. In the Celtic language, the word for oak is druid. It also happens to be the same word for knowledge and the name of one of their influential priest clans. And even though there are hundreds of different oak species that cover large parts of the northern hemisphere, they all fall under two categories: red and white.
The most obvious telltale sign that lets you know whether you’re looking at a red oak or a white oak is the tree leaf. Red oaks are distinguished with thin and elongated leaves that taper off to a narrow point. They also have sharp bristles and if you’re not careful, they can cut the skin easily. The acorns of red oaks are slow to mature. They take up to 2 years in general before they drop to the ground. It will take them another year to sprout again.
White oaks on the other hand have round and smooth leaves. They’re friendly to the touch and your kids can handle them without a problem. Their acorns only need one year to become mature and they’re even faster to sprout than the acorns of red oaks.
Uses of the Oak Tree
Apart from its majestic appearance, the oak tree has other practical uses that go beyond the mere aesthetic. Here are some of the benefits of having an oak tree in your garden.
- Oaks are large trees whose shade keeps your garden and your house cool during the hot summer months.
- In the fall, the leaves of the oak turn into a dazzling gold color.
- Acorns are ground to make flour and roasted to make acorn coffee.
- The wood of the oak is used for furniture and flooring.
- The bark of cork oak is used to make bottle stoppers.
- Many distilleries rely on barrels made of oak to produce their finest spirits.
- The tannin in oak bark is valuable in the tanning industry.
- White oak bark was a staple in traditional medicine.
- Acorns are also used to feed livestock.
Common Oak Tree Types
It’s easy to get confused or feel overwhelmed when you’re trying to pick an oak sapling to plant in your garden from the hundreds of species available. This list covers the most common oak tree varieties.
White Oak (Quercus Alba)
One of the giants of the oak family. The average height is between 80 and 100 feet although some can reach heights of 150 feet or higher once it has matured. The tree reaches maturity within 5 years. The white oak is mainly a forest tree with gray bark that scales off giving a distinct and unmistakable look. The leaves of the tree are lobed although they don’t have the pointy end or sharp bristles that some oak leaves are known for. Because of the size of the trunk avoid planting it near walls or patios. Pruning is usually done during the winter.
Chestnut Oak (Quercus Montana)
The chestnut oak takes its name from its leaves which resemble those of a chestnut tree. They are bright on the top while the underside is gray. It’s not a large member of the oak family and the mature tree averages between 60 and 72 feet on a good day. The chestnut oak is found mainly on the East Coast and Canada and is more suitable for dry limestone soil. It casts a great shade although it grows slowly and takes more than 10 years to mature. Sometimes the leaves look more brown than green which is a symptom of anthracnose, a common oak disease.
Turkey Oak (Quercus Laevis)
One of the most popular oaks to adorn gardens and parks alike. The tree is a native of the southeastern United States and takes its name from its leaves which resemble the foot of the turkey. The turkey oak cuts a fine figure with lush foliage and deep green hues. The acorns are usually mossy around the cups. It’s suitable for light soil and is a fast grower, unlike other oak species. It’s also one of the evergreen oaks and during the winter, the tree will keep its leaves.
Bur Oak (Quercus Macrocarpa)
A massive oak that reaches heights of 100 feet and a trunk diameter of 10 feet. When you consider that it takes on average a whole year to grow one foot, you can imagine how slow growing it is. Its leaves are deeply lobed and thin with a bright upper side and a white underside. Its acorns are the largest to be found in any oak species in North America.
Pin Oak (Quercus Palustris)
Another popular oak that grows fast, tolerates pollution, and adds class and grace to every garden or lawn. Transplanting the pin oak sapling is relatively easy and if you feel like redesigning your garden or landscape, this is the oak that fits your needs. It grows to reach heights between 60 and 70 feet and a 3-foot diameter when mature. It doesn’t age gracefully, however, and tends to lose its neat foliage, preferring to grow wild after the age of 40. The bark also becomes rough as it gets on in years. That said, this is a hardy tree that has adapted to harsh weather conditions and less-than-perfect soil.
Champion Oak (Quercus Rubra)
The aptly named champion oak, or red northern oak as it is sometimes known, is a fine species of oak that reaches 150 in height and has a noble look about it. Come fall, its foliage acquires richness and depth of color that is breathtaking. Within the first 10 years of its life, the champion oak grows to 10 feet tall which explains the name. Its bark is grayish or brown with shiny ridges that cover the whole trunk of the tree. Its acorns take about 2 years before they are fully mature. These large trees are more suitable for large parks and spacious lawns.
Black Oak (Quercus Velutina)
Black oak trees have a yellow color on the inner side of its bark which is why they used to be called yellow oak. They belong to the red oak family tree and when mature they reach heights between 65 to 80 feet. Its leaves are equally large and average between 4 and 8 inches with 5 lobes and bristles at the tip. The top of the leaf is usually shiny green with the underside a matted brown. The acorn is on the medium size with the cup covering almost half of the fruit.