Characteristics of Oak Trees

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Oaks trees have a long life span.
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Some small pockets of the United States are ideal for growing specific oak (​Quercus​ spp.) trees while other varieties of the genus aren't as particular. With hundreds of different types of oaks growing in the northern hemisphere and the fact that the oak lifespan ranges from hundreds to thousands of years, the stately tree is an integral part of U.S. history. You'll find oak trees of many varieties growing in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 10, but not all thrive in all conditions and zones.

Characteristics of Oak Trees

All varieties of the mighty oak tree share some similar characteristics. They grow from acorns on trees that are at least 30 years old and outlast almost anything found on earth. They share a similar round shape and contribute hardwood that was used in building everything from homes to battleships. Their hardiness and disease resistance contribute to their longevity, and many grow up to 100 feet tall. The tallest recorded was a mighty red oak (​Quercus rubra​) that soared 134 feet tall, according to the Arbor Day Foundation.

The differences in oak tree characteristics are best explained by dividing the oaks into species: red oak, white oak (​Quercus alba​) and live oak (​Quercus virginiana​) Red and white oak can tolerate colder temperatures, growing in USDA zones 2 and 3 at the lowest while live oak needs a warm climate and thrives in zones 8 through 10.

Identifying the Red Oak Tree

Grown in USDA zones 3 through 10, the red oak is considered by many to be the most stately of the oak species. Within the species are several varieties of red oak, each with different leaf structures and wood identifiers. Black oak (​Quercus velutina​) isn't really black, but brown-orange in color. The black oak is grown in the eastern United States and Canada, and the wood is rough-grained. Used in furniture and floor-making, the California black oak (​Quercus kelloggii​) is porous, has a low resistance to rot and takes to staining very well.

Also known as "swamp laurel" the laurel oak (​Quercus laurifolia​) prefers the swampy wet soils and humid temperatures of the South. Its wood has a sweet scent, and its grain is coarse. The most widely used red oak is the Shumard (​Quercus shumardii​), which is easy to work with when fabricating it for domestic use.

Characteristics of White Oak

White oak, with its hardiness and resistance to rot, is used primarily for construction projects. For firewood, choose ​Quercus prinus​, a chestnut oak that grows curving branches that are difficult to use for cutting flooring and furniture. With a tendency to warp and crack, Oregon white oak (​Quercus garryana​) produces wood color that ranges from chocolate brown to creamy white but is not recommended for carpentry projects.

French oak is preferred by most French vintners as they age their wines in subtly scented oak barrels, while American vintners use the stronger and more distinct flavors of American white oak, writes the Wine Spectator. And if truffle hunting is your thing, look for them at the base of a white oak tree.

Recognizing a Live Oak

Grown in the South, the live oak is distinct in its shape, with multiple branches drooping close to the ground, and it is often decorated by massive quantities of Spanish moss. The dense wood is what drew builders to use live oak, and, as proof of its hardiness, the ship Constitution used live oak in its construction. Enemy cannonballs bounced off the frigate's sides, leading to the nickname "Old Ironsides."

Live oak is one of the oldest living trees found around the world, with some testing over 700 years and others older than the pyramids. It grows best in urban and rural areas of the U.S. South.


As the editor of "At Home In Palm Beach County" Jann wrote, edited, hired freelancers and saw the magazine through to publication. She's a pro at decor and design and has written thousands of titles on those subjects.

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