Rachel worked as a farm manager for 3 years in Pennsylvania. She owned and operated a small farm in Minnesota for 5 years, until 2019.
I love oak trees for several reasons, one being their inherent beauty, and another being the many uses of their wood—fence posts, fence rails, barrels, casks, boards, and furniture are just a few. I've even written about the value of oak (and other hardwoods) as firewood. I love "hunting" oak in the woods on and surrounding the property where I live. There’s nothing quite like standing under a giant, ancient oak with a five-foot trunk diameter and gazing up into the treetop.
Most people know what an oak tree is and can probably even identify certain trees as oaks when they see them. But did you know there are more than 60 different species of oak trees in the United States alone? Some can only be distinguished by looking at the "hairs" on their stems, the colors of their acorn caps, or the number and shape of the lobes on their leaves. Many types of oak can also cross with other types, so there is great potential for new species to be reported and characterized.
Most oaks fall into one of two main categories—white and red. White oak acorns take one year to reach maturity, while red oak acorns take two years. Another good way to differentiate white from red oaks is the shape of the leaf lobes. Red oak leaves usually come to a point at the end of each lobe, while the lobes of white oak leaves tend to be rounded. This list includes a few of the more common white and red oak species found in the US and a little information about how to identify them.
Oak Species Covered in This Article
|White Oaks||Red Oaks|
The White Oaks
The tree species listed in this section are white oaks that are common in the US. White oaks tend to have rounder lobes on their leaves compared to red oaks, and their acorns take only one year to mature.
Eastern White Oak (Quercus alba)
This species is very large but sometimes not as tall as other oaks. Heights range from 60 to 150 feet and generally depend on the environment each tree grows in. Open spaces allow the eastern white oak to branch out and develop a wide silhouette, whereas those growing in a denser forest tend to become taller. Trunk diameters range from 3 to 5 feet.
Eastern white oak leaves are usually evenly lobed and a bit whiteish on their undersides. Their trunk bark is typically light-gray and furrowed. They produce excellent wood for all varieties of interior and exterior construction and are known for their phenomenal rot-resistance. Eastern white oak wood also burns very hot, so it's a great choice for home-heating or cooking with wood.
Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana)
These are huge trees that can easily reach heights of over 100 feet and trunk diameters of more than 4. Their leaves have many pairs of rounded teeth—sometimes as many as 16. The bark on their trunks tends to be very dark, whereas most other white oak group members have light-gray bark. Their trunk bark is also more deeply ridged than that of other white oak species.
Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa)
Sometimes called the "mossycup oak" because of the fringe on its acorn cups, this tree usually grows to be more than 80 feet tall and can reach heights of up to 150 feet. Trunk diameters for bur oaks typically range from 2 to 3 feet. The shiny leaves of these trees are variable but are usually divided into two or more portions and display the typical rounded lobes of the white oak group. The trunk bark is light-gray and has shallow grooves.
Post Oak (Quercus stellata)
This is a relatively small oak species, ranging in height from 50 to 70 feet with average trunk diameters of 1 to 2 feet. This species' common name may derive from its historical use in the making of fence posts. The smaller trunk diameter makes squaring these logs easy and fast, and the rot-resistant wood makes for long-lasting fence material. The leaves tend to be leathery and feature cross-shaped lobes. Post oak bark is brown rather than gray and has shallow cracks that create the look of rectangular boxes.
The Red Oaks
The tree species listed in this section are red oaks that are common in the US. Red oaks tend to have pointier lobes on their leaves compared to white oaks, and their acorns take two years to mature.
Northern Red Oak (Quercus ruba)
Oaks of this species are often between 70 and 150 feet tall with trunk diameters easily reaching 4 feet. Their leaves are lobed, and the lobes have multiple points but are not as long as those of other red oak group members (like the scarlet oak). Their inner bark is red-orange. Straight-grained red oak splits very nicely into fence boards and roof shingles and is known to burn hot and split well for firewood.
Black Oak (Quercus velutina)
These trees generally grow to between 70 and 100 feet tall, with trunk diameters ranging from 3 to 4 feet. Their leaves are their best identifier and are usually glossy or shiny on top, which distinguishes them from the leaves of most other red oak trees. Their inner bark is orange but less red than that of the northern red oak. Black oak also tends to split well and make very good firewood.
Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea)
These are medium-sized trees that usually grow to between 40 to 50 feet tall, with trunk diameters ranging from 1 to 2 feet and occasionally reaching 3. They prefer dry soil, and their leaves are more deeply lobed than those of their close red oak relatives. Their acorn cups are brown and hairless. Their bark is medium-dark to dark-gray and furrowed. Scarlet oak can be hard to split, but it makes good firewood nonetheless.
Pin Oak (Quercus palustrus)
These trees are large, usually growing to between 70 and 100 feet tall, with trunk diameters easily reaching 3 feet. You can tell pin oaks from other red oaks by their downward-sloping lower branches. Pin oaks are very similar to scarlet oaks, but their buds are hairless, and in the wild, they typically grow many small, "pin-like" branches. Their bark is dark and furrowed, and their wood is good for splitting and burning.
Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata)
These medium-sized to large trees typically grow to between 70 and 100 feet tall with trunk diameters averaging 2 to 3 feet. Southern red oaks, sometimes called Spanish oaks, prefer sandy upland soil and are often confused with cherrybark oaks. Their leaves have only three lobes, and the lobes tend to be irregularly spaced.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is the northern red oak worth any money?
Answer: Sure, as firewood. But if it is very straight-grained, it could be worth more for other uses.
Question: When should I trim dead oak branches?
Answer: In the fall. If you have extremely harsh winters, you can wait until the spring.
Question: I live on land that was once a pine tree preserve. It was turned into farming land and then as land for a residence. Which tree would be perfect for this type of soil? I have a pin oak, but I love tall trees.
Answer: You should do a soil test where you want to plant the trees. You can get test kits cheap on the internet and even free from your Extension office. Once you know what's up with your soil, you can ask the Extension for their expertise. There are way too many trees for me to recommend to you!
Question: What is the proper name of the gray oak?
Answer: Quercus grisea; it is in the white oak group.
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania, now farming in Minnesota on January 12, 2018:
@Ernst Hall - though there is debate about this, q. virginiana is classified as a white oak! There are other oaks and evergreen oaks often referred to as "live oaks", but they might not be white oaks if they aren't the real Virginia live oak deal.
Ernst Hall on January 12, 2018:
What type, red or white, is the Live Oak - Quercus virginiana?
LongTimeMother from Australia on January 28, 2013:
I planted an oak tree today. A friend gave it to my husband as a gift. It's a tiny tree with just a few leaves but it holds the promise of providing a shady corner in the garden sometime in the future. Your hub has inspired me to take a look at the parent tree and see if I can find any clues about which type or oak tree it is. Otherwise I'll just have to wait an awfully long time to see what its bark looks like. No point waiting to see how tall it grows. :)
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania, now farming in Minnesota on August 08, 2012:
Lady_E - Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I didn't always know there were so many different types of trees, either. List goes on and on!
Elena from London, UK on August 08, 2012:
Very interesting and unique Hub. I actually thought oak was oak. I didn't know there were different types. I'm more the wiser now, thanks to you.
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania, now farming in Minnesota on August 02, 2012:
Grandmapearl - Thanks so much for the votes and shares! I really enjoyed writing this one; I just love oak trees. I'm really lucky to have so many different varieties growing around me. I love to play the identification game, seeing if I know which oak is which. Glad you liked the article!
Connie Smith from Southern Tier New York State on August 02, 2012:
Very interesting and informative article FarmerRachel! Right now the squirrels are working the oak trees--in fact, I have to wear a hat when I go outside to help cushion my head from the falling acorns! But I love living in the woods--there's always something happening that's interesting. I have voted this up, interesting and useful and shared and pinned. Thanks for the great info.