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White Oak Quercus alba


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White Oak, habit in winter
credit: Larry Stritch, U.S. Forest Service

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Alternate name: Northern White Oak, Stave Oak

Family: Fagaceae, Beech view all from this family

Description Quercus alba, the white oak, is one of the pre-eminent hardwoods of eastern North America. It is a long-lived native of eastern North America, found from southern Quebec west to eastern Minnesota and south to northern Florida and eastern Texas. Specimens have been documented to be over 450 years old.

Although called a white oak, it is very unusual to find an individual specimen with white bark; the usual color is a light gray. In the forest it can reach a magnificent height and in the open it develops into a massive broad-topped tree with large branches striking out at wide angles.

Normally not a very tall tree, typically reaching 65–85 feet (19.5-25.5 m) at maturity, it nonetheless becomes quite massive and its lower branches are apt to extend far out laterally, parallel to the ground. The tallest known white oak is 144 feet (43 m) tall. It is not unusual for a white oak tree to be as wide as it is tall, but specimens growing at high altitudes may only become small shrubs. White oaks have been known to live up to six hundred years. The bark is a light ash-gray and peels somewhat from the top, bottom and/or sides.

In spring the young leaves are of a delicate, silvery pink and covered with a soft, blanket-like down. The petioles are short, and the leaves which cluster close to the ends of the shoots are pale green and downy with the result that the entire tree has a misty, frosty look. This condition continues for several days, passing through the opalescent changes of soft pink, silvery white and finally yellow green.

The leaves grow to be 5-8.5 inches long and 2.75-4.5 inches wide and have a deep glossy green upper surface. They usually turn red or brown in autumn, but depending on climate, site, and individual tree genetics, some trees are nearly always red, or even purple in autumn. Some brown, dead leaves may remain on the tree throughout winter until very early spring. The lobes can be shallow, extending less than half-way to the midrib, or deep and somewhat branching. The acorns are usually sessile, and grow to 0.5-1 inch in length, falling in early October.

Quercus alba is sometimes confused with the swamp white oak, a closely related species, and the bur oak. The white oak hybridizes freely with the bur oak, the post oak, and the chestnut oak.

The white oak is fairly tolerant of a variety of habitats, and may be found on ridges, in valleys, and in between, in dry and moist habitats, and in moderately acid and alkaline soils. It is mainly a lowland tree, but reaches altitudes of 5,249 ft in the Appalachian Mountains.

Habitat Grasslands & prairies, Scrub, shrub & brushlands, Fields.

Range Mid-Atlantic, New England, Southeast, Texas, Great Lakes, Plains, Florida.

Comments In spite of a long list of troublesome pests, white oak is durable and long-lived. Do not plant in shade, areas of poor drainage, or alkaline soil. Old trees are sensitive to construction disturbance in their root zone and to planting turf around a tree on what had been a forest duff ground cover.

Exposure Preference Sun.

Native Distribution S.w. Maine to e. Minnesota, s. to n. Florida, Texas & e. Kansas

Site Preference Mesic to dry woods; warm, southwest slopes; rocky hillsides

Soil Preference Deep, moist, well-drained, loams & sands. pH 6.1-7.5

Wildlife Value Acorns are horded by birds and rodents.