White oak

One of the largest and longest-lived trees in the Eastern deciduous forest is the white oak (Quercus alba). White oaks can grow up to 150 feet and live to a ripe old age of 450 – 500 years old. White oaks have large spreading crowns, and some of their branches may be as long as the height of the tree.

White oaks get their name from the color of their bark, which can be light gray to white. The white oak is a slow-growing tree with a deep taproot. White oaks bear acorns at about 50 years of age. This smallish acorn is egg-shaped, and it lies in a fairly shallow cap. A single tree can produce almost 10,000 acorns during a good year. White oak produce good acorn crops on three to five year cycles. A cold April or severe drought can disrupt acorn production. White oak acorns germinate soon after falling. These acorns must be covered up or they will dry out or perish from frost damage. Squirrels are very important planters of this rather particular species.

White oaks are found in rich uplands, well drained bottomlands, mountains coves, and lower mountainous slopes. The white oak can thrive in acid soils or soils with a more basic pH, unlike most other oaks which require acid soils. The slow growing oak will germinate and persist in the understory of the forest for a while until it can exploit an opening in the canopy. Given the temperamental nature of seed germination, slow initial growth, and demanding site considerations, it is no wonder that it is difficult to encourage white oak growth in a forest.

White oak acorns are high in carbohydrates and minerals and low in bitter tasting tannins. As such, the acorn was used extensively by Native Americans as a food source, often ground into flour. Most woodland-inhabiting animals eat white oak acorns, especially turkeys, squirrels, deer and many birds.

The Wye Oak tree in Maryland was the nation’s oldest white oak tree until it fell in June 2002.

Credit: Flickr.com - William Bird

White oak wood contains tyloses, chemicals that plug up the internal cells. This closed cellular structure makes this wood watertight, very durable and rot resistant. White oak has been used in ship building and for barrels for wine and whiskey. White oak also has a high impact resistance and good workability, making it a good choice for wood floors, furniture and cabinetry. In 1941 the legislature of Maryland chose white oak as the State Tree. Maryland’s Wye Oak was the National Champion white oak tree up until it was destroyed in a strong thunderstorm on June 6, 2002. The Wye Oak was 460 years old; it developed from an acorn that germinated in 1540.

Article by FCFCDB

Nature Notes for 3/15/2015