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Northern Red Oak Quercus rubra


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Northern Red Oak, leaf
credit: U.S. Forest Service

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Family: Fagaceae, Beech view all from this family

Description Also called red oak or champion oak, (syn. Quercus borealis), this member of the red oak group (Quercus section Lobatae) is a native of North America, in the northeastern United States and southeast Canada. It grows from the north end of the Great Lakes, east to Nova Scotia, south as far as Georgia and states with good soil that is slightly acidic.

In forests, the northern red oak grows straight and tall, to 28 m (90 ft), exceptionally to 43 m (140 ft) tall, with a trunk of up to 50-100 cm (20-40 in) diameter. Open-grown trees do not get so tall, but can develop a stouter trunk, up to 2 m (6 ft) in diameter. It has stout branches growing at right angles to the stem, forming a narrow round-topped head. It grows rapidly and is tolerant of many soils and varied situations, although it prefers the glacial drift and well-drained borders of streams. It is frequently a part of the canopy in an oak-heath forest, but generally not as important as some other oaks.

Under optimal conditions, northern red oak is fast growing and a 10-year-old tree can be 5-6 m (15-20 ft) tall. Trees may live up to 500 years, and a living example of 326 years was noted in 2001 by Orwig et al.

Northern red oak is easy to recognize by its bark, which feature bark ridges that appear to have shiny stripes down the center. A few other oaks have bark with this kind of appearance in the upper tree, but the northern red oak is the only tree with the striping all the way down the trunk.

Bark: Dark reddish grey brown, with broad, thin, rounded ridges, scaly. On young trees and large stems, smooth and light gray. Rich in tannic acid. Branchlets slender, at first bright green, shining, then dark red, finally dark brown. Bark is brownish gray, becoming dark brown on old trees.
Winter buds: Dark chestnut brown (reddish brown), ovate, acute, generally 6 mm long
Leaves: Alternate, seven to nine-lobed, oblong-ovate to oblong, five to ten inches long, four to six inches broad; seven to eleven lobes tapering gradually from broad bases, acute, and usually repandly dentate and terminating with long bristle-pointed teeth; the second pair of lobes from apex are largest; midrib and primary veins conspicuous. Lobes are less deeply cut than most other oaks of the red oak group. Leaves emerge from the bud convolute, pink, covered with soft silky down above, coated with thick white tomentum below. When full grown are dark green and smooth, sometimes shining above, yellow green, smooth or hairy on the axils of the veins below. In autumn they turn a rich red, sometimes brown. Often the petiole and midvein are a rich red color in midsummer and early autumn, though this is not true of all red oaks. Petioles year, about 18 months after pollination; solitary or in pairs, sessile or stalked; nut oblong-ovoid with broad flat base, full, with acute apex, one half to one and one-fourth of an inch long, first green, maturing nut-brown; cup, saucer-shaped and shallow, 2cm (0.8 in) wide, usually covering only the base, sometimes one-fourth of the nut, thick, shallow, reddish brown, somewhat downy within, covered with thin imbricated reddish brown scales.

Warning Leaves and acorns toxic to animals if eaten; in some cases fatal. Humans should generally avoid ingesting plants that are toxic to animals.

Habitat Grasslands & prairies, Scrub, shrub & brushlands, Cities, suburbs & towns.

Range Mid-Atlantic, Great Lakes, Southeast, Eastern Canada, Plains, New England.

Comments One of the most shade-tolerant oaks. Transplants readily due to negligible taproot. Susceptible to the deadly oak wilt. Do not prune in wilt-infested areas during the growing season. Fairly fast-growing. Withstands pollution. Develops chlorosis in soils of high pH.

Exposure Preference Sun to partial shade.

Native Distribution Nova Scotia to Ontario & Minnesota, s. to Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, e. Kansas & e. Nebraska

Site Preference Mesic upland, forests; ravines; north & east slopes

Soil Preference Well-drained, loamy sands. pH 4.8-6.5.

Wildlife Value Attracts songbirds, ground birds and mammals.