March 2023 - White Oak
Common Name: White oak; also referred to as Eastern white oak, stave oak, Northern white oak, ridge white oak, and forked-leaf white oak.
Botanical Name: Quercus alba (“Alba” means “white” and refers to white oak’s light ash-gray bark).
Native Range: Native to New Jersey and to most of the eastern half of the United States in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 9. Found in rich upland forests and sheltered coves, on gravelly ridges, and throughout the pine barrens on moist, sandy soils.
Height: Typically grows to 50 to 80 feet but can grow to 100+ feet.
Spread: Crown may be 50 to 80 feet wide.
Form: A large deciduous tree. When mature, its crown is rounded and wide-spreading; stout, picturesque, often horizontal, branches irregularly divide from a straight central trunk. When young, its form is pyramidal.
Growth Rate: Above ground, it has a low to medium growth rate, to 20-30 feet over a 10-15 year period; grows very slowly after first 20 to 30 years. Below ground, it develops a large, deep root system.
Sun: Best grown in full sun; should not be planted in shade.
Soil: Prefers rich, moist, acidic, well-drained loams or sandy soils. Able to adapt to a wide variety of soil conditions, mesic to dry. Should not be planted in areas with poor drainage or alkaline soil.
Leaf Description: Simple, alternate leaves emerge red to pink in spring. They mature to a dark green or blue-green, dull or shiny above, lighter green beneath. Leaves are on petioles up to an inch in length, and are obovate to elliptical, 5 to 9 inches long and about half as wide, with 5 to 9 rounded, blunt-tipped lobes separated by deep sinuses.
Fall Color: Ornamental in fall. Color varies from brown to rich red to burgundy. Leaves persist through winter.
Flower Description: Monoecious. Insignificant flowers in separate male and female catkins appear in spring as the leaves emerge. Male are yellow-green, female are reddish green. Male catkins are 2 to 4 inches long; female flowers are small single spikes.
Fruit: Fruits are acorns, solitary or paired. Ovoid to oblong in form, ¾ to 1 inch long, with warty-scaled brown caps that enclose 1/4 of the nut. Produced annually. Acorns ripen in their first year and germinate in the fall after dropping to the ground.
Bark Description: Young twigs are shiny, at first green then purplish-red, and finally mature to light ashy gray. Bark on mature trunks is light gray, slightly red- or brown-tinged, variable in appearance but typically broken by shallow furrows into small, vertically arranged blocks and scales. With age, divides into flat narrow ridges separated by fissures.
Wildlife Benefit: White oaks provide food, nesting space, cover, and shelter for countless species of wildlife. Over 150 species of birds and mammals, including squirrels, rodents, and deer, consume acorns. White oaks are host plants for hundreds of moths and several butterflies, including Edwards Hairstreak (Satyrium edwardsii). Their larvae (caterpillars) are a critical food source for fledgling birds. Oaks and their leaf litter are host to numerous arthropods, including inconspicuous insects which also serve as food for birds. Dozens of slugs, snails, and worms depend on oak leaf litter for nourishment and protection.
- Tolerates occasional flooding and drought.
- Tolerates clay soil, dry soil, shallow-rocky soil.
- Black walnut tolerant; resistant to the toxicity of the juglone produced by black walnut trees.
Possible Disease and Insect Problems: Potential diseases include oak wilt, anthracnose and oak leaf blister. Potential insect problems include scale, oak skeletonizer, leaf miner and lace bug. In spite of its susceptibility to a variety of pests, white oak is durable and long-lived.
Uses: May be used as a shade tree, street tree or lawn tree. Needs a large space in which to grow.
Where to be found on municipal property:
- Three (14”-26” DBH) White Oak can be found at the cross street of Princeton Avenue and Nassau Street along Princeton Avenue.
- Multiple mature White Oak can be found along Puritan Court
- Multiple mature White Oak can be seen along the Marquand Park Mercer Street walkway.
- Three (16”-21” DBH) White Oak are located within Potts Park on Erdman Avenue.
- White oak is slow growing, but long-lived. Some specimens have been documented to be over 450 years old.
- Oaks produce large root systems over their lifetimes, making them champion contributors to soil stabilization, carbon sequestration, and ground water management.
- Valuable as a hardwood timber tree. Its high-grade wood is used for furniture and flooring. It is sometimes called "Stave Oak" because its wood is outstanding in making tight barrels for whiskey and other liquids. In colonial times the wood was important in shipbuilding.
- Old trees are sensitive to construction disturbance in their root zone; and to the disturbance entailed in planting turf or other ground cover.
- Not easy to transplant. Consider growing from acorns or planting seedlings.
- Described by horticulturist Michael A. Dirr as “among the most handsome of oaks.”
- Donald Peattie, a famous 20th-century naturalist once said, “If oak is the king of trees, as tradition has it, then the white oak, throughout its range, is the king of kings.”
- Acorns provided Native Americans a source of sustenance. Also used by Native Americans for ceremony, medicine, and building.
Barnegat Bay Partnership, Jersey Friendly Yards: Landscaping for a Healthy Environment, https://www.jerseyyards.org/?s=white+oaks+butterflies.
Dirr, Michael A., Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses, 5th Edition, Stipes Publishing L.L.C., 1998, pp. 814-815.
Kartesz, J.T., The Biota of North America Program (BONAP). 2015. North American Plant Atlas. (http://bonap.net/napa). Chapel Hill, N.C.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Martine, Christopher, Trees of New Jersey and the Mid-Atlantic States, Forest Education Resource Center, NJ Department of Environmental Protection, 4th Edition, 2000, p. 72.
Missouri Botanical Garden
Stories from the Wigwam, Institute for American Indian Studies, https://nativeamericanmuseum.blogspot.com/2018/10/medicinal-monday-white-oak-king-of-trees.html.
Tallamy, Douglas W., The Nature of Oaks, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 2021.