What is a Northern Red Oak Tree?

Discover interesting facts about the Northern red oak trees. These street trees are not just known for their shade but they also offer a variety of usage.

A very popular shade tree and street tree in both Europe and North America, the northern red oak is a very important member of the oak-heath forest family. Planting a northern red oak is not only a wonderful contribution to urban landscapes but also a vital resource for wildlife.

Quercus rubra is a super interesting tree to learn about, but if you’re curious about different types of oaks head on over to Black Oaks, Chestnut Oaks, Scarlet Oaks, and White Oaks. Keep the learning alive and read 101 Types of Trees to practice some tree identification!

Related: Live Oak Tree | Chestnut Oak Tree | White Oak Tree | Scarlet Oak Tree | Black Oak Tree

Quercus Rubra

Oak trees are a very large family. They have to be divided into two subgenera’ and 8 categories within those in order to properly organize them. The northern red oak is part of the lobatae section in the Quercus genus, which is the red oak group.

The northern red oak is distinguished from the southern red oak (Quercus falcata) through growing regions and a few foliage characteristics. This tree is most closely related to the pin oak (Quercus palustris) in both characteristics and growing range.

The northern red oak is sometimes called the champion oak for its lovely shape and high-quality wood. It is the state tree of New Jersey and the provincial tree of Prince Edward Island in Canada.

This deciduous tree once bore the scientific name Quercus borealis, or eastern red oak, and is one of the most common species of an oak tree in the northeastern-central United States, and southeast-central Canada.

It is a fast-growing and long-lived tree; growing up to 1.5 meters in a year and living a baffling 400 years when in the ideal growing conditions. This put the northern red oak in the old-growth category, though most oaks are. Some can actually live to be over 1000 years old!

What do Northern Red Oak Trees Look Like?

Root System

Oak trees develop different types of root systems, depending on their growing location. In very moist locations, they will develop wide-spreading lateral roots that grow only about 18 inches deep in the soil.

The northern red oak usually grows in more moist-dry areas, and will therefore develop a taproot system (they have this in common with carrots!). These types of roots grow deeper into the earth to access locked in moisture reserves. It will bring that water reserve up through the roots, distribute it upwards as well as into the topsoil. This is highly beneficial to the surrounding forest floor brush.

Dimensions

Red oak tree

Again, depending on the growing location, an oak tree will experience different types of growth. In open areas, they will not grow to be as tall as they don’t need to compete for an opening in the forest canopy. They will usually grow to be about 28 meters tall in these types of areas, with a very stout trunk diameter of 2 meters!

Within forests, oak trees will grow much taller with a very straight trunk. Sometimes reaching heights of 43 meters and trunk diameters of 20-39 inches. This is because they have to compete for sun exposure with other species of trees.

Growth Pattern

Depending on if they grow in open areas or dense forests, northern red oaks will develop their branches lower down on the trunk if out in the open, or only at the very top in forest areas.

Stout branches grow in right angles directly from the stem. The crown will usually be narrowly shaped with a round top.

Bark

The bark of a northern red oak tree is quite unique from other oak trees. They are the only tree that features shiny stripe-y ridges all along the trunk.

The bark on young trees is smooth and light gray with hardly any texture. Large items will have this style of bark no matter the age of the tree. Old trees have bark that is a much darker gray color, with some tones of red and broad. Mature trees will have thin and rounded scaly ridges.

Foliage

Northern red oak tree canopy

The leaves of the northern red oak emerge purely due to photoperiod — spring foliage sprouts once the amount of sunlight in a day reaches 13 hours. This has nothing to do with the temperature in the air. However, this also means that foliage can perish because of unexpected spring frost. This is detrimental to the reproduction, as the foliage will fall prematurely, preventing seed production for that year.

A northern red oak leaf will emerge from its dark brown winter bud covered in silky down. The leaf is alternately arranged on the twig, is oblong-ovate in shape, and is usually 5-10 inches long and 4-6 inches broad. Leaves have between 7 and 9 lobes with shallow notches.

Once a leaf is fully grown it will be a dark green color with a shiny sheen on the topside of the leaf. The underside of the leaf will be a lighter green, with downy hairs growing along the axils of the veins. In autumn, northern red oak leaves turn a rich red.

Twigs

The twigs and branchlets are very slender and shiny. When they first emerge they are very bright green, which eventually turns dark red, then dark brown.

Twigs and branchlets are very rich in tannin, which is a biochemical created to help defend the tree. Tannins are present in twigs and acorns which tastes very bitter to animals, and this deters them from over-grazing or over-harvesting.

How do Northern Red Oaks Reproduce?

Flowers

Oak trees are monoecious, meaning that they possess both female flowers and male flowers on the same stalk. Flowers emerge as catkins, which are clusters of flowers with indistinct or no petals. A catkin will emerge at the same time that the leaves do. They are very pale green in color.

Fruit

Once a tree has been successfully fertilized, either through wind pollination or insect pollination, it will produce fruit in the form of an acorn.

Acorns emerge either individually or in pairs, and take a full two growing seasons to become fully mature. The acorn is a nut with a broad base in a light brown color, and a scaly, saucer-shaped cap that covers just the top of the acorn.

These acorns will be eaten and distributed by a variety of animal species. However, because these trees are so sensitive to temperature, many of the acorns will be entirely eaten and digested before they can grow into a tree.

An acorn that has fallen by gravity will not be able to germinate unless it experiences a minimum of 3 months with temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sexual Maturity

Acorn with oak leaves on the background.

Northern red oak trees are very long-lived and are so to grow into their sexual reproduction phase of life. With an average life of 400 years, they start to produce acorns between the ages of 20 and 42. However, these crops are erratic at best. They will experience their most productive acorn crops between the ages of 40 and 50.

What Are Some Other Types of Oak Tree?

Autumn scenery with huge oak trees.

Part of the beech family, Fagaceae, the oak is a very large species and contains around 500 different subspecies. The family contains both deciduous and evergreen varieties, and they grow in cool temperatures, tropical temperatures, and everything in between.

The United States contains 90 of the species, Mexico has 160 native oak species, 109 of those which are endemic (only ever have and only ever will grow there) and China has 100 native tree species.

Because there are so many, they have been divided into two subgenera, and 8 sections within those two subgenera categories. These divisions are classified by the different evolutionary traits of the trees. The two subgenera are identified as the “old word” species that occur in Eurasia, and the “new world” species that occur in the Americas.

Quercus – New World

White Oaks (sect. Quercus)

White oak tree on a snow.

Native to Europe, Asia, and North America, white oaks are a shorter species with sweet acorns and are deciduous.

Live Oaks (sect. protobalanus)

Live oak tree near a pond.

Native to the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, live oaks are a shorter species with bitter acorns and are deciduous.

Southern Live Oaks (sect. virentes)

Old Southern live oak tree

Native to the southwestern United States, southern live oaks are shorter with fast maturing acorns and are of the evergreen variety.

Short Oaks (sect. ponticae)

Native to the eastern United States, short oaks are obviously a short variety with uniquely shaped leaves and are deciduous.

Red Oaks (sect. lobatae)

Red oak tree

Native to central and southern America, red oaks are taller, acorns take longer to mature, and are deciduous.

Cerris – Old World

Ring Cupped Oaks (sect. cyclobalanopsis)

Ring cupped oaks green leaves

Native to eastern and southeastern Asia, ring cupped oaks have distinct acorns with cups with rings of scales, and they are of the evergreen variety.

Turkey Oaks (sect. cerris)

Turkey oak tree

Native to Europe and Asia, turkey oaks are a taller variety with bitter acorns that take longer to mature, and they are deciduous.

Eurasian oaks (sect. llex)

Native Europe and Asia, Eurasian oaks are medium-sized trees with acorns that take longer to mature, and they are of the evergreen variety.

Where do Northern Red Oak Trees Grow?

The northern red oak grows mainly in North America. Specifically in eastern and central America, and southeastern-central Canada. These trees are a very important canopy member of the oak-heath forest.

It’s growing region starts just north of the Great Lakes, eastward towards Nova Scotia. It extends southwards as far as Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, towards Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota.

There are also small groves present in certain areas of Western Europe. They don’t grow naturally but have been cultivated as garden trees and park trees.

What are the Growing Conditions of Northern Red Oak Trees?

Red oaks with autumn foliage on a park.

Soil

Northern red oaks are able to tolerate a great many varieties of soil, though they do have preferences. Soils must be well-drained and slightly acidic. They tend to grow the best soils derived from glacial drift and well-drained soils on borders of streams and riverbanks.

Sun Exposure

Though they are partly shaded tolerant, northern red oaks prefer to have full sun. The height and width of their trunks will vary depending on how much sun exposure they experience.

Temperature

Most of the temperature requirements come from the trees’ ability to have successfully germinated seeds. Acorns need to experience a minimum of 3 months of temperatures of 40 degrees Fahrenheit and lower.

What are the Damaging Agents to a Northern Red Oak Tree?

Red oaks stand out against the blue sky.

Northern red oaks are actually more susceptible to certain damaging agents than other species of oak trees, because of the warm locations that they tend to grow in.

  • they experience much predation of insects that over-graze foliage and acorns. This prevents the trees to produce large seed crops, which results in a lowered opportunity for seeding dispersal.
  • red oaks experience leaf browning, and the cracking of bark by the canker pathogen diplodia corticola, which makes them vulnerable to further infections.
  • of all oak trees, the northern red oak is most susceptible to the two species of plant fungi, phytophthora cinnamomi and phytophthora ramorum, which cause severe and harmful black cankers on the trunk. They are most susceptible because these fungi grow in warm conditions as the tree does.
  • northern red oaks are also vulnerable to oak wilt that is caused by the fungus, ceratocystis fagaceaerum. Once a tree starts showing symptoms of this infection, it will be dead a few short weeks after.

How is Northern Red Oak Trees Used?

Norther red oak forest

Wood

The wood of northern red oak trees is a pale red-brown color with darker sapwood. The wood is strong, hard, heavy, and coarse-grained. These characteristics often cause cracking when the wood is cut and dried, however, once it is carefully treated it can be used without any significant weaknesses. Logs that have defects are used as firewood.

Northern red oak wood is often used as interior finishing in home building, as well as flooring, and furniture. It is highly valued in the lumber industry and is used in the manufacturing of fence posts and railroad ties.

Red oak is considered so valuable, that oftentimes other oak wood is cut and marketed as red oak; such as eastern black oak, scarlet oak, pin oak, Shumard oak, and southern red oak.

Additionally, because of the open grain of the wood, it is very vulnerable to moisture infiltration and is not a good option for outdoor use. The grain is so open that smoke can be blown directly through a log from end grain to end grain.

Animal Consumption

Acorns and twigs contain a large amount of tannic acid, which is a naturally occurring biochemical that is employed to deter the appetite of animals and insects. However, there are many animals that seem un-phased by the bitter taste in acorns.

Northern red oak acorns are eaten by whitetail deer, ruffed grouse, squirrels, various birds, and moth species as well, such as the gypsy moth.

FAQs

Are northern red oak trees messy?

Because the northern red oak tree is deciduous, it may be considered as being messier than a coniferous tree. Deciduous trees will annually shed their foliage and fruit, making quite a large amount of debris.

However, this debris proves as being very beneficial for the smaller ground-dwelling creatures. Layers of dead leaves create a protective and insulating layer for small animals and insects to make as their habitat in the harsh winter months.

Is the northern red oak a pioneer species?

A pioneer species is a species of tree or plant that is the first to repopulate an area after there has been natural devastation; avalanches, forest fires, droughts, floods, etc.

Northern red oak trees are fast-growing and develop hearty taproots. They are adaptable to many types of soil and perform well in full sun exposure. They have many of the characteristics needed to classify them as a pioneer species, but the way that their seeds are distributed hinder their reproductive success.

This is because much of their seed crops are eaten and damaged in the digestion process, and will not be able to successfully germinate once they are excreted. Additionally, climate change has altered the regular temperatures that oak trees are accustom to, resulting in unviable acorns.

Is the northern red oak a monocot or dicot?

Northern red oak trees are dicot. Determining whether a tree is a monocot or dicot is based on the seed leaves that the embryonic seedling has within its seed. A monocot will have one seed leaf, and a dicot will have two seed leaves.

Are northern red oak leaves simple or compound?

A leaf is simple when it contains one single leaf on a stem. A leaf is a compound when one leaf contains multiple leaflets that makeup one leaf on a stem. Northern red oak leaves are simple.

Do northern red oak trees have acorns?

The fruit that emerges from a northern red oak tree after pollination is in form of a chestnut-brown acorn with a scaly cap.

How tall do northern red oak trees get?

The red oak is a medium to a large tree. Depending on the growing location of the tree, a northern red oak can grow to be 28 meters in open areas, and as tall as 43 meters in closed forest areas. This is in response to the amount of sun exposure that the tree receives.

If it receives ample sunlight in an open area, it can dedicate energy towards branch and leaf production. If the tree has to compete for sunlight exposure in a forest, it will dedicate its energy towards growing a tall trunk to reach that sunlight.

How quickly do northern red oaks grow?

Northern red oaks are quick-growing trees and can grow over a meter in a year. A 10-year-old sapling will be up to 5-6 meters tall.

How long do northern red oak trees live?

Oak trees are very long-living trees. There are some species that can live to be over 1000 years old. The northern red oak tree lives to be around 400 years old. Either way, oaks are a proud member of the old-growth forest.

How do you identify a northern red oak tree?

The easiest way to differentiate northern red oak trees from other species of oak is through its bark. Red oaks are the only species of oak that have long shallow fissures and shiny ridges along the trunk — this gives the impression of the trunk being striped.

What kills northern red oak trees?

Oak trees are unfortunately very susceptible to oak wilt. This is caused by the fungus ceratocystis fagaceaerum. Once a tree first shows signs of oak wilt, it will likely be dead within 3 weeks.

What zone do northern red oaks grow in?

Northern red oaks grow in the USDA hardiness zone 3a.

What is the scientific name of the northern red oak?

Quercus Rubra.

How does the northern red oak tree protect itself?

To prevent over-grazing and over-harvesting, the twigs, inner bark, and acorn kernels of the northern red oak tree are high in tannic acid. This is a naturally occurring biochemical that tastes very bitter to animals, preventing them from eating too much.

What color bark does a northern red oak have?

The bark of the northern red oak changes colors as it ages. A young tree will have light gray bark with little texture, and an old tree will have dark brown-gray bark with shallow fissures and shiny ridges.

Where do you find northern red oak trees in Canada?

Northern red oaks grow naturally starting at the Great Lakes and will grow in Ontario, Quebec, eastern Manitoba, and in the Maritimes.

Is red oak hardwood or softwood?

Red oak is a hardwood.

Does northern red oak wood make good firewood?

Northern red oak makes for decent firewood, though because of its coarse grain a lot of smoke will pass through it. It doesn’t have a very high heat capacity and will produce a lot of smoke, which are generally unattractive features in firewood.

Are red oak roots invasive?

Red oak roots develop as taproots which grow deep into the earth in search of moisture. Because they grow so deep, they may interfere with infrastructure and piping. They are difficult to transplant, but the roots are not invasive.

Is pin oak the same as red oak?

Pin oaks and red oaks are different species but are both parts of the red oak group.

Which wood is stronger, red oak or white oak?

White oak is considered as being a slightly harder wood than red oak. White oak has a score of 1360 on the Janka scale (scale measuring wood hardiness) and red oak has a score of 1290.

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