What is a Scarlet Oak Tree? - Home Stratosphere

What is a Scarlet Oak Tree?

Everything you need to know about the scarlet oak tree, what it looks like, how it reproduces and how the scarlet oak trees, are used.

A close look at a scarlet oak tree during fall.

The scarlet oak is one of the best-known species of an oak tree, thanks to its stunning fall color. The northern red oak has no comparison to this species, and the chestnut oak wishes it wasn’t one of the coarser trees.

Important to wildlife and to the beauty of our gardens, the scarlet oak is an important part of our community. We’ve also covered info on the northern red oak, the chestnut oak, the black oak, and the white oak if you’re curious.

Don’t forget to check out 101 Types of Trees for all you tree lovers out there!

Related: Live Oak Tree | Chestnut Oak Tree | White Oak Tree | Northern Red Oak Tree | Black Oak Tree | Oak Wood Generally

Quercus Coccinea

Scarlet oaks are part of the red oak group of the oak family, which is in the lobatae section. Oaks are such a large family that they are divided into 2 subgenus and 8 different sections. Oaks look rather similar to one another, and scarlet oaks are often mistaken for pin oak, black oak, and red oak.

The main difference between the scarlet oak and these other trees is that the scarlet oak holds onto its leaves well into the wintertime. The contrast between the white snow and scarlet autumn foliage that lingers on is where the tree gets its name.

The scarlet oak is a deciduous tree and is the official tree of the District of Columbia. It is very fast-growing and can live to be up to 300 years old. This is rather young, considering that other species of the oak tree can live to be over 1000!

What do Scarlet 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 scarlet oak usually grows in more 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

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. Scarlet oaks will usually grow to be between around 20 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 30 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 how much sun exposure a tree has, it will reserve energy either for trunk height, or for branch extension. When a tree grows in a closed forest canopy, it will have a much taller trunk with branches that start growing higher up on the trunk.

When a tree grows in an open area, the trunk will be shorter and more stout, and branch growth will begin further down on the trunk. In the case of the scarlet oak, considering these types of branch growth, the crown is usually quite open and rounded.

Bark

This is a close look at a bark of a scarlet oak tree.

The bark of a young tree is dark gray and very smooth in texture. An old tree will have developed shallow fissures, with furrowed gray bark that has deepened into a very dark gray with scaly ridges.

The inner bark is a striking red-brown color, only contributing to the true scarlet theme of this tree.

Foliage

This is a close look at the scarlet foliage of the scarlet oak tree.

This tree has interesting leaves with some slight differences compared to other oak leaves. They are 2-7 inches long with 7 lobes. The notches are more C-shaped than other oaks, which have U-shaped notches. Each lobe has bristle-tipped teeth.

When the leaves first emerge they are a light green color. A scarlet oak leaf when mature is hairless and is a glossy green. Its autumn foliage is a very striking scarlet color, hence where the tree gets its name. These leaves do not fall as soon as cold weather approaches, making for beautiful scenery against a snowy landscape.

How do Scarlet Oak Trees Reproduce?

Flowers

This is a close look at the young flowers of a scarlet oak tree.

Oak trees are monoecious, meaning that they possess both male flowers and female flowers on the same stalk. These flowers aren’t particularly ornamental and don’t contribute to the aesthetic appeal of the tree.

A male flower is borne as a dangling catkin (cluster of flowers with indistinct or no petals) and is light green. A female flower is borne close to the stem and is much smaller, and is the same color. Scarlet oak flowers emerge between the months of April and May.

Fruit

This is a close look at a cluster of fruits of a scarlet oak tree.

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, different types of insects feed on the scarlet oak acorns and destroy them — effectively disabling their germination. About 80% of all scarlet oak acorns will be destroyed by weevils, gall wasps, and moth larvae.

Sexual Maturity

Scarlet oaks will usually start to produce acorns after 20 years, but will experience their most productive crop years after the age of 50. This large tree will have good crop bearings every 3-5 years, with poor crops the years in between.

During those off years, almost the entire crop will either be eaten or destroyed, resulting in no new scarlet oak seedling for several years.

What Are Some Other Types of Oak Tree?

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 oak 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 Scarlet Oak Trees Grow?

Like most oak trees, the scarlet oak is native to eastern-central America and Canada. They grow from southern Maine to Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia. These places are all within the USDA hardiness zones 4 through 9.

What are the Growing Conditions of Scarlet Oak Trees?

This is a close look at a garden dominated by a scarlet oak tree.

Soil

Scarlet oaks are able to tolerate a great many varieties of soil, even poor soil, though they do have preferences. It must be well-drained and quite acidic soil.

They tend to grow best soils derived from glacial drift, and well-drained, sandy soil on borders of streams and riverbanks. They have moderate drought tolerance as well.

If a scarlet oak grows in very alkaline soil, it will experience something called iron chlorosis. When the soil has a pH level greater than 7, the tree will become iron deficient. Iron is important in chlorophyll synthesis in leaves.

When a tree cannot produce enough iron, it cannot make chlorophyll which results in a dull yellow shade to its leaves.

Sun Exposure

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

Temperature

Scarlet oaks will grow best in regions that experience annuals temperatures with lows of 50 degrees Fahrenheit and highs of 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

Water

This tree requires normal moisture levels, usually hovering around 30 inches of annual precipitation.

What are the Damaging Agents to the Scarlet Oak Tree?

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.
  • scarlet 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 scarlet 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.
  • scarlet 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.
  • scarlet oak trees do not usually survive or recover well from fire damage. This means that they are not a pioneer species and will often not repopulate an oak-heath forest that has experienced a forest fire.
  • scarlet oak acorns are often destroyed by small insects before they are able to germinate. Weevils, moth larvae, and gall wasps will destroy a solid 80% of their acorns.

How is Scarlet Oak Trees Used?

This is a close look at a cluster of scarlet oak tree leaves.

Ornamental

First and foremost, scarlet oak is valued for its ornamental quality. Often planted as a shade tree or garden tree, the scarlet oak is known for its contrasting colors. Dark bark against scarlet autumn leaves adds beauty to any landscape — especially if it experiences snowfall.

Wood

Scarlet oak wood is also valued in the timber and lumber industry. The wood is a light red-brown color, with large pores, and is coarse grained. Though not as valuable as white oak species, their wood is used to make flooring, furniture, cabinetry, and interior trim.

Wildlife

Like all other oak species, the acorns of the scarlet oak are a popular choice for many insect and animal species. They are an important food source for songbirds, wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, squirrels, chipmunks, white-tailed deer, mice, blue jays, and red-headed woodpeckers.

FAQs

How fast do scarlet oak trees grow?

The scarlet oak is a considerably fast-growing tree and they can sprout an impressive 12-24 inches in a year.

How long do scarlet oak trees live?

Oak trees are very long-lived trees in the right conditions. There are some species of oak trees that can live to be over 1000 years old. The scarlet oak usually lives to be between 300 and 400 years.

How tall do scarlet oak trees get?

Scarlet oaks are medium to large trees, and depending on their growing conditions and growing region they will grow to be between 20 and 30 meters tall.

Do scarlet oak trees produce acorns?

Like all other oak trees, the scarlet oak tree produces acorns every 3-5 years. These acorns are light brown with a scaly cap and take a full 2 growing seasons to become fully mature. These acorns are eaten by many animal and insect species.

Are scarlet oak trees deciduous?

Scarlet oaks are a deciduous variety of oak trees. This means that they drop their leaves seasonally. Trees do this in order to prepare for the approaching winter months. Since there is less daylight in the winter, trees do not get enough energy for efficient photosynthesis.

In response to this, trees drop their foliage and go dormant in the winter. Once spring returns, new spring foliage will sprout.

Some may consider this as being messy on their lawn when the foliage falls, though it provides valuable protection for small mammals and insects in the winter.

How do you identify a scarlet oak tree?

The easiest way to identify a scarlet oak tree is by its striking fall colors — there is no other oak tree that has brighter red leaves.

The scarlet oak has spiny lobed leaves that are slightly different from other species. They have 7 lobes and C-shaped notches and serrated margins.

What is the scientific name for scarlet oak?

Quercus coccinea.

What is special about the scarlet oak tree?

The scarlet oak tree is best known for its beautiful fall color. The leaves will turn a very brilliant scarlet red color. Not only that, the leaves will stay on the tree well into the winter, resulting in a stunning contrast between the leaves and the snowy landscape.

What is the difference between a scarlet oak tree and a northern red oak tree?

Red oak trees (Quercus rubra) are much larger with differently shaped leaves than scarlet oak. Red oaks also have foliage that is slightly duller, and the sapwood of the red oak is lighter in color than that of the scarlet oak.

Are scarlet oak tree roots invasive?

Scarlet oaks develop taproot systems. This means that roots will grow deep into the earth in order to access locked-in moister. They are not invasive roots (though they can interfere with plumbing and infrastructure) but their main annoyance is that they are incredibly difficult to transplant without damaging the tree.

Is the scarlet oak a heritage tree?

In the Wedgewood neighborhood in Seattle, there is a scarlet oak tree that has been deemed as a heritage tree. Not all scarlet oaks are heritage trees.

Why are my scarlet oak leaves turning yellow?

Scarlet oaks are susceptible to something called iron chlorosis. This occurs when they are growing in soil that is too alkaline for their well-being — this is usually a pH level of 7 or more.

This means that the tree is iron deficient. Iron is very important for a tree to produce chlorophyll, which is how they photosynthesize. If a tree isn’t getting enough iron, it will stop photosynthesizing and leaves will turn yellow.

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