Here is everything you need to know about the white oak tree, what it looks like, how it reproduces and how the white oak trees are used.
White oaks are an incredibly important species of the North American hardwood forest. Their name is derived from the color of its finished wood, which is also a highly coveted material. The white oak is the state tree of Illinois, and the tallest one known today was first planted in 1938 and is 44 meters tall!
Oak forests are mostly comprised of pin oak, northern red oak, silver oak, scarlet oak, and chestnut oak. White oak species can be found cultivated all over the world, though they grow naturally in central and eastern Canada and America.
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The white oak tree is one of the most valuable of its species. It is best known for its contribution to the wine and whiskey industries; the rot-resistant and special aromatic qualities of the wood make it the perfect material for barrel aging.
The white oak is a deciduous tree that grows naturally in central and eastern North America. At times the large tree is confused with swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) or bur oak, but it is easy to differentiate them based from their growing conditions.
White oak trees are incredibly long-lived. Many trees live to be an average of 200-300 years, with some reaching 450 years. The oldest known white oak died in 2016 and was from Basking Ridge, New Jersey. It was 7.6 meters in trunk diameter, 23 meters tall, and 38 meters wide, and was suspected to be over 600 years old when it died.
What do White Oak Trees Look Like?
Oak trees will have different types of root systems, based on their growing conditions. In drier conditions, an oak tree will develop a taproot system (they have this in common with carrots!). Taproots grow very deep into the earth in order to access water reserves. They will then absorb that water and distribute it throughout the rest of the tree and in the topsoil. This is also highly beneficial for surrounding plant life.
In more moist conditions, an oak tree will develop a shallow root system. These root systems grow laterally and are very widespread; they rarely reach a depth of more than 18 inches into the soil. White oaks can grow in many types of soil, and depending on the moisture level of the soil, the root system will vary.
As with its roots, the dimensions of the oak tree will also vary based on growing location. When a white oak grows in forests, it will grow to be much taller in order to access a coveted spot in the forest canopy. In these conditions, they will have thinner trunks, with heights of 24-30 meters.
When a white oak grows in open spaces, it will be far shorter with massively extending branches. In these conditions, the tree will sometimes be wider than it is tall. When trees grow at high altitudes, they will sometimes only reach the size of a small shrub.
White oak trees are known as being massive and wide-spreading. They have a broad topped crown with branches that usually grow parallel with the ground. In open spaces branches will grow very low to the ground; sometimes so low that one could just hop up onto one of the branches and walk along with it.
In forests, branches of the white oak tree will develop much farther up the trunk. This is because when a tree grows in more shady conditions, it must reserve its energy towards trunk height. Once they reach an appropriate height, they can then develop their branches, which will enable more leaf growth, which will enable more photosynthesis.
The bark of a young tree will be very light gray in color with barely any texture. The bark of older trees will only be slightly darker ash gray and will have developed shallow, scaly fissures. These scales peel from the top, bottom, and sides, and start their formations halfway up the trunk of the tree.
The petioles of the white oak are short, and on them are close clusters of white oak leaves. A young leaf is a silvery pink color and is covered in very soft down; the color and texture produce and misted/frosted look to the leaves.
The leaves start out this silvery pink color, they will grow into a white color, then into a delicate yellow-green color, and finally into a deep, glossy green. In autumn, depending on the climate and growing site, the leaves will either turn red, purple, or brown before they fall.
White oak leaves are between 5 and 9 inches long, 2 and 5 inches wide with 7-9 lobes. The leaf is obovate or oblong in shape with shallow notches.
How do White Oak Trees Reproduce?
The flowers of the white oak develop in May when the spring leaves are about a third of the way grown. Oaks are monoecious, meaning that they possess both male flowers and female flowers on the same stalk.
Staminate flowers (male characteristics – pollen-producing) are borne as a catkin that is 2-3 inches long. The male flower is not particularly ornamental, though it has a yellow calyx and bright yellow anthers to attract pollinators.
Pistillate flowers (female characteristics – ovule producing) are borne on short peduncles. They develop on the axils on the previous year’s foliage, with bright red stigmas.
Once an oak tree has been successfully fertilized, either through wind pollination or insect pollination, it will produce fruit in the form of acorns. Acorns take at least 1 growing season to become fully mature and will fall in the October month of the following year. Most other oak species require 2 years for full acorn development.
A white oak acorn is a light brown with a scaly cap that covers at least one-half of the acorn. White acorns, unlike other oak acorns, have no epigeal dormancy and are reading for germination without any sort of temperature or moisture treatment.
However, acorns do deteriorate very quickly after ripening, the seeds of 6 months only have a 10% likelihood of germinating into a seedling.
White oaks become sexually mature after about 20 years and will produce their largest and most successful crops between the age of 50 and 70. Large crops are produced every 2-3 years, with smaller crops they years in between.
What Are Some Other Types of Oak?
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)
Native to Europe, Asia, and North America, white oaks are a shorter species with sweet acorns and are deciduous.
Live Oaks (sect. protobalanus)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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 White Oak Trees Grow?
White oak trees grow naturally in central and eastern North America, though they have been cultivated all over the world. They remain on the eastern side of the continent because they are extremely sensitive to fire damage, and are unable to expand into the fire-prone central regions across the midwest.
They grow specifically in Ontario and Quebec in Canada, southward towards Minnesota, Maine, northern Florida, and eastern Texas.
White oaks are mainly lowland trees, though they can grow at altitudes of up to 1600 meters in the Appalachian mountains. They’re a very important member of the oak-heath forest, and will most likely be found in valleys and mountain ridges.
What are the Growing Conditions of White Oak Trees?
The white oak is tolerant of many types of soils and habitats. They prefer either moderately acidic soil or alkaline soil. They are content with soil that is either moist or dry, though they will develop different types of root systems based on those conditions.
White oaks are semi-shade tolerant, though they prefer to grow in open spaces with full sunlight throughout the day rather than partial shade. In open spaces, they will grow shorter and wider, and in forests, they will grow far taller and narrower.
How are White Oak Trees Used?
White oak wood is light brown with a pale, nearly white sapwood. The wood is tough, heavy, fine-grained, and very strong. The wood is both water and rot-resistant, which is why it is the number one option for whiskey and wine barrels.
Oak barrel-aged whiskies are some of the most delicious, and everyone is aware of the qualities that oak caskets give to wines.
In Japan, white oak wood is also used in the manufacturing of martial arts weapons; specifically the bokken and jo. This is because of the density, resiliency, and low chance of splintering that the wood provides.
An interesting factoid is that the USS Constitution is made up of both white oak and southern live oak. This is because those woods were known as being resistant to cannon fire.
Many musical instrument manufacturing companies will also use white oak for all of its exceptional qualities, specifically the Deering Banjo Company, that strictly uses this wood.
And finally, white oak wood is used for furniture, agricultural implements (due to its water and rot-resistant qualities), shipbuilding, and interior finishing for houses.
This big tree isn’t particularly popular as ornamental or street trees (though they do make an exceptional shade tree) for several reasons. Number one is that they are very intolerant to urban pollution and road salt. Additionally, they produce quite a large mess in autumn because of their deciduous nature and large crops of acorns.
Finally, they aren’t popular ornamental trees because of their very slow growth and enormous size. It is not always expected that a tree will grow to be wider than it is tall, but that is often the case with the white oak tree.
The acorns of the white oak are far less bitter than those of the red oak, and therefore are far more popular among forest-dwelling creatures. Acorns are eaten by turkeys, wood ducks, pheasants, grackles, blue jays, nuthatches, thrushes, woodpeckers, rabbits, squirrels, and deer.
The foliage of the white oak is also the only known source of food for both the bucculatrix luteella and bucculatrix ochrisuffusa moths. Young shoots of the tree are eaten by deer and are a very important food source for white-tailed deer in the winter.
Are white oak trees endangered?
Oak trees are unfortunately very susceptible to the pathogen from the ceratocystis fagacearum fungus that causes oak wilt. Oak wilt is a vascular disease that blocks the tree’s circulatory system that transports water and nutrients.
Many oak trees are on the critically endangered list, and white oaks are one of them. White oaks are more endangered because their acorns are also very popular among forest-dwelling creatures, and often entire crops of acorns will be eaten, leaving none left to germinate into new trees.
Are white oak trees valuable?
White oaks are some of the most valuable species of an oak tree. Their water and rot-resistant wood are not only beautiful but of very high quality.
They are very valuable to the whiskey and wine industries, as well as for shipbuilding and agriculture implements. White oak wood is used for instrument and martial art weapons-making as well.
What is the difference between a white oak tree and a black oak tree?
White oaks and black oak trees are very distinguishable from one another. Black oaks have much darker and more textured bark, whereas white oak wood is very light gray and lightly textured.
Their leaves are differently shaped and they grow in different growing conditions as well. Black oaks are large trees, but not quite as large as the white oak.
Are white oak trees messy?
Because white oaks are deciduous trees, some may consider them as being messy. Deciduous trees drop their leaves in the fall to prepare for the winter months, and the following fall they will drop their mature fruits.
Oak trees develop acorns which are large nuts. And though they are eaten by many animal and insect species, they still create quite a large pile of debris if they grow in a park or garden.
What genus does the white oak tree belong to?
Oak trees belong to the Quercus genus. The Quercus genus has about 500 species.
How tall do white oak trees get?
White oak trees are a very large tree species, and when they grow in forests they will obtain heights of up to 24-30 meters. The tallest living white oak is 44 meters tall.
Are white oak trees fast-growing?
White oak trees are very slow-growing trees, making them an unpopular choice as ornamental tree. They will usually only grow about 12 inches in a year.
How long do white oak trees live?
Oak trees are very long-lived species. Some trees can exceed 1000 years when they grow in the ideal conditions. White oaks are long-lived as well, usually living to be 200-300 years old, though there are some that live to be over 450. The oldest known white oak died in 2016 but was said to be over 600 years old.
Are white oak trees invasive?
White oaks are not invasive species. This is a common misconception because of their root systems. Trees that develop taproot systems that grow deep into the earth can sometimes interfere with human infrastructure or other plant life, but this does not make them invasive.
An invasive species is usually a foreign plant brought to a new environment that has no natural predators and is able to reproduce freely and without restriction. White oaks are native to North America and are actually on the critically endangered list.
Do white oak trees have acorns?
Like all oak trees, the white oak produces fruit in the form of acorns.
Do white oak trees produce acorns every year?
White oak trees produce productive crops every 2-3 years, with either no seeds or a small crop in the years in between.
When do white oak trees drop their acorns?
Oak tree acorns take quite a long time to mature. Some acorn species, like that of the red oak, need a full 2 years to reach full maturity. White oak acorns only take 1 growing season to become mature, and they will usually drop the following October.
Do white oak trees lose their leaves?
White oaks are deciduous trees, meaning that they seasonally lose their leaves. Deciduous trees do this to prepare for the winter months. Leaves have chlorophyll which is a biochemical responsible for photosynthesis.
Winter days do not have enough sunlight to enable enough energy for efficient photosynthesis, and so it is more economical for the tree to go dormant in the winter months. Once spring returns with warm weather and longer days, the tree will produce new foliage and begin its photosynthesis once more.
Do white oak trees shed their bark?
White oak trees aren’t particularly defoliating trees, though the bark is produced in scales that peel away at the edges. The bark does not peel away in excess.
What biome does the white oak tree live in?
White oak trees leave in temperate deciduous forest biomes.
How much does a white oak tree grow in a year?
White oaks will grow between 12 and 24 inches if they live in ideal conditions. They will grow less than 12 inches if they grow in less than favorable conditions.
What organisms eat from the white oak tree?
Twigs, acorns, and foliage are eaten by deer, small mammals, and many species of birds. The leaves are eaten by various moth species.
What category is a white oak tree species?
White oak trees are part of the white oak group.