Red oak

Red oak

The red oak is one of the largest and most important timber trees. One of the fastest growing of the oaks, it attains a to 80 feet and a diameter of two to three feet. It has a wide, spreading head with few far reaching branches. Found growing over southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States, it reaches west to central Minnesota, eastern Nebraska and Kansas. It is found over most of Iowa on a variety of soils, except on the drier clay uplands. It prefers moist, rich soils on north, east or northeast exposures.

The tree has a single, lobed leaf with seven to eleven pointed or bristly-tipped lobes. The lobe sinuses reach one-half way to mid-vein. The leaves are thin, firm, dull green above, yellow-green below, varying considerably.

The fruit is a large, broad, rounded acorn with a very shallow disk-like or saucer-shaped cup or cap.

The twigs are small, slender, greenish brown to dark brown. On young branches the bark is smooth and gray to greenish. On the trunk it breaks into long, narrow, shallow ridges flat and smooth on top. The underbark is light red.

Required Growing Conditions

Northern red oak is widely distributed throughout much of the eastern United States and southeastern Canada. It grows from Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick southward to southwestern Georgia, Alabama, northern Mississippi, northern Arkansas, and eastern Oklahoma. Northern red oak extends westward through Minnesota and Iowa, south through eastern Nebraska and Kansas to eastern Oklahoma. It occurs locally in eastern and southwestern Louisiana and western Mississippi. For current distribution, please consult the Plant Profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site.

Cultivation and Care

Adaptation: Northern red oak commonly grows on mesic slopes and well-drained uplands, less commonly on dry slopes or poorly drained uplands, at (0-) 150–1800 meters in elevation. It typically grows on lower and middle slopes, in coves, ravines, and on valley floors, most commonly on N- and E-facing slopes and on clay, loam, and sandy or gravelly soils. Best growth is in full sun and well drained, slightly acidic, sandy loam. It occurs as a dominant in many natural communities, including mixed mesophytic and pine-oak.

Northern red oak is intermediate in shade tolerance but generally unable to establish beneath its own canopy. Seedlings usually do not reach sapling or pole size unless gaps are created in the canopy. Northern red oak is often replaced by more shade-tolerant species such as sugar maple and American basswood.

Flowering occurs in April–May, during or before leaf development, while fruiting (August–) September–October.

General: Northern red oak generally first bears fruit at about 20–25 years, although most trees do not produce acorns in abundance until 40–50 years. Good crops are produced every 2–5 years. In most years, birds, mammals, and insects commonly destroy up to 80% of the crop and nearly the entire crop can be eliminated in poor years. Seeds on the soil surface are particularly vulnerable to rodent predation, and germination frequencies are much higher when a layer of leaf litter covers acorns. Under natural conditions, acorns generally germinate in the spring after over-wintering breaks dormancy.

Germination and seedling establishment may be successful in full and partial shade, but early growth is reduced by shade, poor soil, and competing herbaceous vegetation. Seedlings in mature stands may be present in large number, but few survive more than a few years or grow to more than 15–20 cm in height. Under optimal conditions, northern red oak is fast growing and trees may live up to 500 years.

Seedlings, saplings, and small poles of northern red oak can sprout if cut or burned. Although young oaks typically stump sprout readily, older and larger individuals also may sprout.

General Upkeep and Control

The tight relatively thin bark of northern red oak makes the trees more susceptible to fire damage than in species of oak with rougher, corkier bark. Apart from immediate mortality, damaged basal cambial tissue permits the entry of insects and heart-rot decay that may ultimately kill the tree. Even so, northern red oak is adapted to periodic fire, which is integrally associated with oak forests. Older, larger individuals often survive fire and seedlings, saplings, and pole-sized individuals commonly sprout vigorously from the stumps or root collar after being top-killed by fire. Increased fire suppression has favored more shade-tolerant hardwoods and resulted in a decrease in oaks.

Acorns can maintain viability in controlled storage for up to 2–3 years. They should be stratified at 1-3( C for several months; those from northern populations require the longer period. Growth is best when sown as soon as ripe into permanent position or in an outdoor seedbed protected from predation. Cuttings obtained from young trees can be rooted if treated with hormones. Transplants of bare root stock are best done in spring. Because of its usefulness and popularity, northern red oak is commonly available in ball-and-burlap and in containers.

The gypsy moth and numerous other insects can attack northern red oak, occasionally causing serious damage. Numerous caterpillars enjoy oak foliage, but feeding damage is usually not severe. Oak decline is a serious disease of northern red oak and has affected the species throughout much of the central Appalachian region.

Oak wilt Northern red oak is susceptible to oak wilt, a fungal disease that invades the water-conducting vessels and plugs them. As water movement is slowed, the leaves wilt and rapidly drop off the tree. The disease begins with a crinkling and paling of the leaves, followed by wilting and browning from the margins inward. Necrosis may be strongest along the veins or between them. The symptoms move down branches toward the center of the tree and the tree may die within 1–3 months, although some diseased trees may survive up to a year. The disease may be spread by insects (primarily beetles) or pruning tools, but most of the tree loss in oak wilt centers results from transmission through root spread between adjoining trees. A trench (dug and then immediately filled) between neighboring trees severs the roots and prevents fungus spread. Dead and infected trees must be destroyed – once a tree has become infected, there is little chance to save it. The wood may be used for firewood provided it is debarked or covered and sealed during the spring and summer (Johnson and Appel 2000; Roberts 2000; Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources 2000; City of Austin 2000).

This disease most seriously infects species of the red oak group (including black and live oaks). Overcup oak, bur oak, white oak, and other members of the white oak group are not as susceptible and can be planted in oak wilt centers. Oak wilt has reached epidemic proportions in Texas and in the mid-West from Iowa and Minnesota through Michigan and Wisconsin into Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.


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