Meet the Trees: Introducing the Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra)
Where the Northern Red Oak Grows
Classification and Characteristics
The Northern Red Oak is a deciduous, flowering tree. It is a member of the major group Angiosperms, which actually means "flowering plants". Oaks are related to the Beech, both belonging to family Fagaceae, a family of trees and shrubs comprised of about 600 to 900 different species of both evergreen and deciduous types characterized by simple, alternate leaves. Oaks are further classified as genus "Quercus", and the Northern Red Oak is known as Quercus rubra. It belongs to the section "Lobatae", a latin term meaning "lobed", and the red oak subgenus Erythrobalanus. Other names for the Northern Red Oak include the common red oak, eastern red oak, mountain red oak, and gray oak.
It can be found growing from Canada to the eastern U.S. coastline and through the southern regions of the United States. It grows as far north as Quebec and Ontario, westward to Nebraska and Kansas, southward through Oklahoma and onward to parts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. It is usually found on northern or eastern facing slopes, and prefers full sun and good drainage.
Northern Red Oaks flower from April to May before and while the leaves develop, and produce acorns in September and October though may begin as early as August. The trees can start producing acorns as early as 20 to 25 years of age, though most do not produce an abundant crop until they reach 40 to 50 years old. The tree produces a good crop of acorns every 2 to 5 years and, under the best conditions, Northern Red Oaks grow fast and can live up to 500 years old!
The Northern Red Oak is adapted to occasional fire, as fires are a natural occurrence in oak forests. Older trees sometimes survive fire, while seedlings and saplings can rapidly sprout from the stumps after fire.
The Northern Red Oak
Bark of the Northern Red Oak
The Flower of the Northern Red Oak
Arboretums are an exceptional place to get to know your trees. But if your tree doesn't come with a nametag, here are some details to help you identify a Northern Red Oak tree in the forest.
Native Northern Red Oaks generally grow to a height of 20 to 30 meters (about 65 to 100 feet), occasionally reaching heights up to 50 meters (about 165 feet)! On young trees the bark is smooth, while older trees have a more textured pattern said to resemble ski tracks. On the outside the bark of mature trees is dark grey to black in color and is broad, hard, and scaly with shallow ridges. On the inside the bark can be pink or reddish.
The tree produces both male and female flowers in separate catkins. The males are produced from yellowish-green hanging catkins, while the females originate from short spikes and appear with the leaves in spring.
Northern Red Oaks exhibit the classic oblong oak leaf shape, 8 to 15 centimeters (about 3 to 6 inches) long and 10 to 25 (about 4 to 10) inches wide. The leaves are bare and dull green to blue-green on top, while on the bottom are a lighter shade of dull green with hairs in the angles of the veins. Trees that fall under the Red Oak category (such as Northern, Southern, Laurel, Pine, Black, Water, and Willow Oaks) typically have pointed tips at the ends, whereas the leaves of White Oak trees are generally more rounded at the tips. The Northern Red Oak leaf has 7 to 11 wavy lobes that divide less than halfway to the midvein and sharpen off into irregularly shaped points at the ends.
The tree's acorns mature in two seasons and are typically 2 to 2 1/2 centimeters) (about 3/4 to 1 inch) long. They grow alone or in groups of 2 to 5. The cap is shallow and covers 1/4 or less of the acorn.
Northern Red Oak Leaf
Acorn of the Northern Red Oak
Full Sun and Good Drainage
Traditionally, Native Americans used the acorn of the Northern Red Oak as a source of food. Natives would prepare the acorns by boiling, leaching with ashes, soaking for days or burying though the winter to alleviate the bitterness of the acorns caused by its tannins. Some Natives would use the red bark medicinally for heart ailments or bronchial infections, and also utilized its astringent, disinfectant, and cleaning properties.
In the forest the Northern Red Oak is home to many types of animals, providing both cover in the cavity and suitable nesting spots. Mammals like deer and rabbits eat the leaves. Blue jays, wild turkeys, squirrels, rodents, raccoons, white tail deer and black bear are particularly fond of red oak acorns.
This tree is good for landscaping as it can handle both pollution and compact soil. In this environment Northern Red Oaks will grow as much as 2 feet a year for up to 10 years. Typically the tree will grow to a height of 60 to 75 feet with a 45 foot spread. It is a rounded shade tree that will grow best in zones 3-8. The leaves turn an attractive red in the fall. Saplings can be purchased for about $6 to $9, but agricultural laws prevent the tree from being shipped internationally and even to a handful of states within the U.S.
In production, Northern Red Oak is prized for its close-grained, heavy hardwood. The lumber is used in a variety of ways, including furniture, cabinets, flooring, and railroad ties. Red Oak lumber is recommended for indoor projects because open pores in the wood make it susceptible to rot when repeatedly exposed to weather conditions. When purchasing "Red Oak" lumber, the wood can be from any number of trees which fall into the "Red Oak" category. In addition to Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra), Red Oak lumber can include Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata), Black Oak (Quercus velutina), Laurel Oak (Quercus laurifolia), Pin Oak (Quercus palustris), and a few others. This is in contrast to the "White Oak" lumber group which often times exhibit clogged pores in some parts of the tree, making White Oak less susceptible to rotting and decaying, and more suitable for projects that will be repeatedly exposed to the elements (like outdoor furniture) or that need to be water-tight (like a boat). (http://www.wood-database.com/wood-articles/distinguishing-red-oak-from-white-oak/)
Our Friend, The Northern Red Oak
Now that you're familiar with identification and uses of the Northern Red Oak, seek it out in woodlands and landscapes across the middle and eastern parts of the U.S. Once you learn to identify it, you'll notice all the wonderful uses this tree provides. Whether is a home, a food, a tree for shade or a kitchen cabinet, your admiration will grow for this beautiful, versatile plant - our friend, the Northern Red Oak.
Arbor Day Foundation. "Oak, Northern Red (Quercus rubra)". http://www.arborday.org/treeguide/treeDetail.cfm?ID=20. 5 Jun 2014.
Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry. "Northern Red Oak", Sander, Ivan L. http://www.na.fs.fed.us/pubs/silvics_manual/volume_2/quercus/rubra.htm 22 May 2014
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Plant Guide. "Northern Red Oak". http://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_quru.pdf. 22 May 2014
Virginia Tech Dept. of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. VTree. "Northern Red Oak". http://dendro.cnre.vt.edu/dendrology/syllabus/factsheet.cfm?ID=38 22 May 2014
The Wood Database. "Distinguishing Red and White Oak". http://www.wood-database.com/wood-articles/distinguishing-red-oak-from-white-oak/. 5 Jun 2014.
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