Common Oak Trees: Oak Tree Identification Guide For Gardeners

Common Oak Trees: Oak Tree Identification Guide For Gardeners

By: Jackie Carroll

Oaks (Quercus) come in many sizes and shapes, and you’ll even find a few evergreens in the mix. Whether you are looking for the perfect tree for your landscape or want to learn to identify the different types of oak trees, this article can help.

Oak Tree Varieties

There are dozens of oak tree varieties in North America. The varieties are divided into two main categories: red oaks and white oaks.

Red oak trees

Reds have leaves with pointed lobes tipped with tiny bristles. Their acorns take two years to mature, and sprout the spring after they drop to the ground. Common red oaks include:

White oak trees

The leaves on white oak trees are rounded and smooth. Their acorns mature in one year, and they sprout soon after they fall to the ground. This group includes:

Most Common Oak Trees

Below is a list of oak tree types that are the most commonly planted. You’ll find that most oaks are massive in size and not suitable for urban or suburban landscapes.

  • White Oak Tree (Q. alba) – Not to be confused with the group of oaks called white oaks, the white oak tree grows very slowly. After 10 to 12 years, the tree will stand only 10 to 15 feet tall (3-5 m.), but it will eventually reach a height of 50 to 100 feet (15-30 m.). You shouldn’t plant it near sidewalks or patios because the trunk flairs at the base. It doesn’t like to be disturbed, so plant it in a permanent location as a very young sapling, and prune it in the winter while it is dormant.
  • Bur Oak (Q. macrocarpa) – Another massive shade tree, the bur oak grows 70 to 80 feet tall (22-24 m.). It has an unusual branch structure and deeply furrowed bark that combine to keep the tree interesting in winter. It grows further north and west than other white oak types.
  • Willow Oak (Q. phellos) – The willow oak has thin, straight leaves similar to those of a willow tree. It grows 60 to 75 feet tall (18-23 m.). The acorns aren’t as messy as those of most other oaks. It adapts well to urban conditions, so you can use it a street tree or in a buffer area along highways. It transplants well while it is dormant.
  • Japanese Evergreen Oak (Q. acuta) – The smallest of the oak trees, the Japanese evergreen grows 20 to 30 feet tall (6-9 m.) and up to 20 feet wide (6 m.). It prefers the warm coastal areas of the Southeast, but it will grow inland in protected areas. It has a shrubby growth habit and works well as a lawn tree or screen. The tree provides good quality shade despite its small size.
  • Pin Oak (Q. palustris) – The pin oak grows 60 to 75 feet tall (18-23 m.) with a spread of 25 to 40 feet (8-12 m.). It has a straight trunk and a well-shaped canopy, with the upper branches growing upward and lower branches drooping down. The branches in the center of the tree are nearly horizontal. It makes a wonderful shade tree, but you may have to remove some of the lower branches to allow clearance.

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20+ Types of Oak Tree (Different Species of Oak Trees)

Home > Plant Identification > 20+ Types of Oak Tree (Different Species of Oak Trees)

Oak trees are beloved and well-recognized trees around the globe. With over 500 living species, interesting facts and relationships are as abundant as the squirrel-forgot acorns beneath the ground. Today we’ll be exploring different types of oak trees, detailing their botanical names, growing preferences, and other distinguishing tidbits.

Oak Tree Leaves: Similarities And Differences

There are about 60 different types of oak trees which are native to North America. These trees fall into two primary categories: red oaks and white oaks. Oaks have what is called “alternate” leaves, which means that only one leaf emerges from the stem, which gives the appearance that the leaves are alternating from one side to another. Depending on the species, the leaves can be a different shape or have a different number or shaped “lobes”, which are the parts of the leaf which curve outward from the primary vein.

A post oak leaf is usually dark green, thick and leathery. These leaves usually measure between four and six inches and have five lobes. Live oak leaves look very different from post oak leaves, with an oval shape and a glossy surface which is usually between two and four inches long. Bur oaks have leaves that resemble post oaks. These leaves are up to a foot long with five to nine lobes. Red oaks have leaves which come to a point at the ends instead of the rounded tips of post oaks and live oaks. These trees have between seven and nine lobes. To identify other species which grow in Texas by the shape and size of the leaf, consult the Trees of Texas database.

Identifying the Types of Tree Leaves

The shapes of the leaves help to identify the tree species

Tree identification is usually possible by examining the leaves.

There are three basic leaf types: broadleaf, needles, and scales.


Most, but not all, deciduous plants have broadleaves that can be in all shapes and sizes. The leaf shapes can be oval, rounded, long and narrow, triangular, or heart-shaped. Some easily identifiable broadleaves are the iconic maple leaf and the oak leaf with its lobed leaves.

Needle leaves

Many evergreen trees such as conifers, pines, and spruce trees have needle leaves. These can be long, thin and straight and grow in clusters. Or, the needles could be soft needles that grow sparsely on the twig.

Scale leaves

Some types of evergreen trees like juniper and cedar have scale-like leaves. Their leaves look more like scales than needles.

Other ways to identify trees by their leaves include:

  • Opposite leaves grow directly across from each other on the leaf stem.
  • Alternate leaves grow in a staggered, alternating pattern along the stem.

The Most Common Oak Trees of North America

Glenn Ross Images/Getty Images

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Glenn Ross Images/Getty Images

An oak tree is one of the most common species of trees in the Northern Hemisphere which includes North America. Oak trees come in two major prototypes — red oak trees and white oak trees. Some oak trees have leaves that stay on the tree year-round (evergreen) and others have leaves that drop during dormancy (deciduous), plus they all bear the familiar acorn fruit.

All oaks belong to the beech tree family but do not look like a beech tree. About 70 oak species grow to tree size in North America.

Overall Shape

Oak trees do not usually have a single, straight leader after branching begins, but spread out into several large branches. If the oak does have a single trunk it is rarely straight after branching. Oaks also tend to be as wide as they are tall when given enough room, but growing conditions have a larger effect on this than species. An oak growing in the forest will be tall and thin like its neighbors, while oaks growing in large, even spacing along a planted row are short and wide.

Missouri's Oaks

Diverse and plentiful

Missouri is home to 19 species and at least 16 hybrids of oaks. Most of our forest products industry, including flooring, barrel staves, pallets and railroad ties, is based on the oaks. Oaks are also the most important hardwoods in North America. Only three other species or groups of trees—all conifers—exceed them nationally in lumber production. Here in Missouri our oak saw timber volume of 8.3 billion board feet represents 63 percent of all our saw timber.

Historically important

Much of our heritage and culture has been influenced by the oaks because of their unique qualities and sheer abundance. In ancient times humans not only admired but actually worshipped oaks. Ships and empires were built with oak. Oaks live, too, in legend and history: The old Oaken Bucket, the Charter Oak, and even in Robin Hood's Sherwood Forest.

Ecologically important

Oak mast (acorns) is of tremendous importance to deer, squirrels, turkeys and other wildlife.

The oaks, which are related to beech, chestnut and chinquapin, have several distinguishing characteristics. The fruit is the familiar acorn, a staple food for many species of wild animals. Leaves occur singly on alternate sides of the twig. Large pores are found in the springwood and rays of wood radiate from the pith. Next to the acorn, the best identifying characteristic is the cluster or groups of buds found at the end of the twigs. The star-shaped pith of the twigs is characteristic also.

Large family divided into two groups

The larger family of oaks is divided into two groups. This aids greatly in identification by automatically eliminating the species in the other group.

White oaks

The white oak group, called botanically Leucobalanus, is one group. In this the white oak, Quercus alba, is the predominant species. It also includes post, bur, swamp white, chinquapin, over cup, and swamp chestnut oak. These species provide the so-called sweet mast. Their acorns mature in one year, are less bitter, and germinate in the fall. Buds are rather rounded. The bark is light gray in color and rather flaky. Leaves are lobed or wavy along the edges but the lobes and ends of the leaf are rounded and smooth. The wood cells of these trees are coated inside with a plastic-like substance called tyloses. This makes the wood waterproof and accounts for its use in barrels, buckets, and ships. White oak wood is most durable.

Red (or black) oaks

Erythrobalanus is the name for the red or black oak group. This includes the true black oak, Quercus velutina, and also northern red, southern red, pin, shingle, willow, water, blackjack, cherrybark, shumard, and scarlet oaks. The live oaks are usually grouped here, too, although none grow in Missouri. Red oaks are characterized by the little bristles or spine-like tips at the end of their leaves or lobes. The leaves may be lobed or entire as in the case with shingle, willow and water oaks. Even in this latter case, bristles are at the tips of the leaves. Buds are pointed, bark is dark gray to black. It is rather rough and ridged rather than flaky. Acorns take two years to mature and they are bitter with tannin. They germinate in the spring. Red oak lumber is important for flooring and other uses, but it is neither very durable nor waterproof.

Differences between white oaks and black oaks

Red oaks have bristle-tipped lobes or teeth on their leaves, while white oaks lack this feature. The bark of red oaks is often dark gray, brown or occasionally black, and it is rough, hard and ridged. The bark of white oaks is a lighter color and scaly or flaky. White oak acorns are sweet and they mature on the tree in one growing season, while the acorns of red oaks are bitter and mature in two seasons.

The pores of the wood of the white oaks are plugged with material called tyloses. Because of tyloses white oak wood is used in barrels that hold liquids, and white oak is used in the aging of spirits like bourbon whiskey. Red oak barrels can only be used to store dry materials, and the wood has more important uses as railroad crossties and flooring.

Watch the video: How to Identify a Tree By Leaf, Bark and Fruit. Wood and Lumber Identification for Woodworking