Missouri's Oaks

Diverse and plentiful

Missouri is home to 19 species and at least 16 hybrids of oaks. Most of our forest products industry, including flooring, barrel staves, pallets and railroad ties, is based on the oaks. Oaks are also the most important hardwoods in North America. Only three other species or groups of trees—all conifers—exceed them nationally in lumber production. Here in Missouri our oak saw timber volume of 8.3 billion board feet represents 63 percent of all our saw timber.

Historically important

Much of our heritage and culture has been influenced by the oaks because of their unique qualities and sheer abundance. In ancient times humans not only admired but actually worshipped oaks. Ships and empires were built with oak. Oaks live, too, in legend and history: The old Oaken Bucket, the Charter Oak, and even in Robin Hood's Sherwood Forest.

Ecologically important

Oak mast (acorns) is of tremendous importance to deer, squirrels, turkeys and other wildlife.

The oaks, which are related to beech, chestnut and chinquapin, have several distinguishing characteristics. The fruit is the familiar acorn, a staple food for many species of wild animals. Leaves occur singly on alternate sides of the twig. Large pores are found in the springwood and rays of wood radiate from the pith. Next to the acorn, the best identifying characteristic is the cluster or groups of buds found at the end of the twigs. The star-shaped pith of the twigs is characteristic also.

Large family divided into two groups

The larger family of oaks is divided into two groups. This aids greatly in identification by automatically eliminating the species in the other group.

White oaks

The white oak group, called botanically Leucobalanus, is one group. In this the white oak, Quercus alba, is the predominant species. It also includes post, bur, swamp white, chinquapin, over cup, and swamp chestnut oak. These species provide the so-called sweet mast. Their acorns mature in one year, are less bitter, and germinate in the fall. Buds are rather rounded. The bark is light gray in color and rather flaky. Leaves are lobed or wavy along the edges but the lobes and ends of the leaf are rounded and smooth. The wood cells of these trees are coated inside with a plastic-like substance called tyloses. This makes the wood waterproof and accounts for its use in barrels, buckets, and ships. White oak wood is most durable.

Red (or black) oaks

Erythrobalanus is the name for the red or black oak group. This includes the true black oak, Quercus velutina, and also northern red, southern red, pin, shingle, willow, water, blackjack, cherrybark, shumard, and scarlet oaks. The live oaks are usually grouped here, too, although none grow in Missouri. Red oaks are characterized by the little bristles or spine-like tips at the end of their leaves or lobes. The leaves may be lobed or entire as in the case with shingle, willow and water oaks. Even in this latter case, bristles are at the tips of the leaves. Buds are pointed, bark is dark gray to black. It is rather rough and ridged rather than flaky. Acorns take two years to mature and they are bitter with tannin. They germinate in the spring. Red oak lumber is important for flooring and other uses, but it is neither very durable nor waterproof.

Differences between white oaks and black oaks

Red oaks have bristle-tipped lobes or teeth on their leaves, while white oaks lack this feature. The bark of red oaks is often dark gray, brown or occasionally black, and it is rough, hard and ridged. The bark of white oaks is a lighter color and scaly or flaky. White oak acorns are sweet and they mature on the tree in one growing season, while the acorns of red oaks are bitter and mature in two seasons.

The pores of the wood of the white oaks are plugged with material called tyloses. Because of tyloses white oak wood is used in barrels that hold liquids, and white oak is used in the aging of spirits like bourbon whiskey. Red oak barrels can only be used to store dry materials, and the wood has more important uses as railroad crossties and flooring.

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Black Oak

Black oak is a medium-sized tree with a wide-spreading, open crown and tall, straight trunk.

Leaves are alternate, simple, with 5–7 bristle-tipped lobes, cut deep or shallow. They are 5–10 inches long, 3–8 inches wide, dark and shiny above, pale and conspicuously fuzzy underneath (the species name, velutina, means "velvety").

Bark is smooth on branches, becoming black and very rough. The inner bark is distinctively mustard yellow or orange, and bitter.

Blackjack Oak

Blackjack oak is a small to medium-sized tree with a rounded, irregular crown; distinctive bark; and a tendency to retain dead branches on the middle to lower part of the trunk. It is well limbed along the entire length of the trunk.

Leaves are distinctively wedge- or bell-shaped; alternate, simple, bristle-tipped, leathery, and shallowly 3-lobed. Upper surface is dark green and shiny; lower surface is yellow-brown or yellow-green, with tan to brown hairs. Several leaves persist in winter.

Bur Oak (Burr Oak)

Bur oak is a medium to very large tree with a broad, spreading, rounded crown, a massive trunk, and low, large, spreading branches.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 6–12 inches long, 3–6 inches wide, spatula-shaped, and broadest near the middle; margin with 5–9 lobes, notches shallow on the outer half but deeply cleft near the base, the notch of the two largest lobes almost reaching the central vein; lobe tips rounded; upper surface dark green; lower surface downy and pale.

Bark is thick, gray-brown, and deeply grooved at maturity; ridges long, flat-topped.

Cherrybark Oak

Cherrybark oak is a medium to large tree with a straight, branch-free trunk and an open, rounded crown.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 6–7 inches long; margin with 5–11 lobes; top of lobes at right angles to the central vein, fairly evenly spaced and uniform in size, bristle-tipped, notches between lobes shallow; shiny dark green above, pale and with whitish, yellowish or grayish hairiness below. Leaf stalks often flattened. Leaves often have a drooping appearance. Turn reddish-brown in fall.

Dwarf Chestnut Oak

Dwarf chestnut oak is a shrub or small tree, usually growing in multistemmed clumps or thickets.

Leaves are alternate, simple, leathery, 1½–4 inches long; margin wavy, widely toothed, with 4–8 teeth per side, a vein running to each tooth; upper surface green, shiny, smooth; lower surface much paler, velvety-hairy; turning red in autumn.

Bark is brownish-gray, smooth, with horizontal pores; developing into flat, scaly, checkered ridges with shallow furrows.

Twigs are reddish-brown and hairy, becoming gray and smooth.

Flowers April–May, in catkins.

Northern Red Oak

Northern red oak is a large tree with a tall, straight trunk; large, spreading branches; and a rounded crown.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 5–9 inches long, with 7–11 bristle-tipped lobes cut halfway to the midrib. Lobes are uneven in size and length, those along the upper half short and broad. Upper surface smooth, yellow-green; lower surface smooth with occasional tufts at the intersection of the veins.

Nuttall's Oak

Nuttall's oak is a medium to large-sized tree with a rounded, open crown of spreading branches.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 3–6 inches long, widest above the middle; usually with 7 narrow, long-pointed lobes with 1–5 bristle-tipped teeth; notches between lobes rounded and wide. Upper surface dull green, smooth; lower surface paler with tufts of hairs in the vein axils; leaf stalk rather slender, smooth, ¾–2 inches long.

Bark is gray-brown, smooth; becoming blackish, shallow-grooved and with flat, scaly ridges with age.

Overcup Oak

Overcup oak is a medium-sized tree with an irregular crown, twisted branches, and a swollen base when growing along the edges of swamps.

Leaves alternate, simple, 3–10 inches long, narrow but broadest above the middle, with 5–9 rounded lobes, middle lobes usually widest, often squarish, notch of lobes with various shapes, leaf tip rounded to pointed; leaves dark green and shiny above; light green and hairy beneath; turning yellow, brown, or reddish in autumn.

Bark brownish-gray and rough, with large, irregular plates or ridges.

Pin Oak

Pin oak is a large tree with a tall, straight trunk and pyramidal crown. Lower limbs droop, middle limbs are horizontal, and top limbs slant upward.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 4–6 inches long, broadest in the middle; lobes usually 5–9; notches rounded, deep, 2/3 or more to the central vein; each lobe with 2–4 sharp-pointed teeth, bristle-tipped. Upper surface dark green, shiny; lower surface paler, smooth, with tufts of hair in the vein axils. Turn yellow to deep scarlet in fall.

Post Oak

Post oak is a small to medium-sized tree with a broad, rounded crown and stout, sometimes contorted branches.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 4–7 inches long, 3–4 inches wide, leathery; with 3–5 lobes, middle lobes squarish, resembling a cross, the end lobe often 3-notched, notches between lobes deep, rounded; upper surface dark green; lower surface paler, with tiny star-shaped hairs.

Bark is gray, irregularly grooved, ridges narrow, rough with platelike scales.

Twigs are stout, densely hairy during most of the season.

Scarlet Oak

Scarlet oak is a medium-sized tree with a long, straight trunk, an open, narrow crown, and sometimes persistent dead branches on the lower trunk.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 3–7 inches long, with 7–9 lobes extending more than halfway to the central vein, the notches rounded and C-shaped, the lobe tips with large, bristle-tipped teeth. The upper surface is bright green, shiny, and smooth; the lower surface is paler, sometimes with tufts of rusty hairs at the axis of main veins. Leaves turn scarlet in autumn.

Shingle Oak

Shingle oak is a medium-sized tree with a straight trunk and an open, broadly rounded crown.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 4–6 inches long, 1–2 inches wide, broadest above the middle, oblong-elliptical, with a shiny upper surface; tip with a single bristle. This is the only Missouri oak with large, entire (lobeless and toothless) leaves. Leaves turn yellowish or reddish brown in autumn; dead leaves often persist on the tree through winter.

Bark is smooth, brownish-gray when young; nearly black with broad ridges and shallow fissures with age.

Shumard Oak

Shumard oak is a medium to large-sized tree with a tall, straight trunk, stout branches and a large, open crown.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 6–8 inches long; with 5–9 lobes with 2–6 bristle-tipped teeth, lobes wider at their tip than at their base, notches between lobes rounded, over halfway to central vein. Upper surface dark green, shiny, smooth; lower surface paler, smooth, with tufts of hairs in the vein axils. Leaves turn red in autumn and are usually the first of the oaks to turn color.

Swamp Chestnut Oak (Basket Oak)

Swamp chestnut oak is a medium to large tree with a wide, rounded crown and bark resembling that of white oak.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 4–8 inches long, broadest above the middle, margin with large, rounded or sometimes sharp teeth; tip pointed. Upper surface dark green, shiny, smooth; lower surface whitish, velvety; leaf stalk ¾ inch long. Leaves turn reddish- or yellowish-brown in fall.

Bark is light gray or tan, with scaly plates on mature trees; inner bark reddish.

Twigs are moderately stout, smooth, reddish-brown.

Flowers April–May, in catkins.

Swamp White Oak

Swamp white oak is a medium-sized tree with an open, irregular, rounded crown, ascending upper branches, and pendulous lower branches.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 4–7 inches long, widest above the middle; margin with lobes or large, rounded teeth, or both, some of the side veins not ending in teeth; upper surface dark green, shiny; lower surface downy-whitish.

Bark is brownish; gray to dark brown with age; grooves deep, ridges broad, flattened, and loosely curling at the ends, appearing rough; bark on larger branches often peeling.

Southern Red Oak (Spanish Oak)

Southern red oak, or Spanish oak, is a large tree with a long, straight trunk, open, rounded crown, and spreading branches.

Water Oak

Water oak is a medium to large tree with a tall straight trunk, a rounded, symmetrical crown, and ascending branches.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 2–4 inches long, broadest near the tip, fan-shaped, tapering to a long, narrow base; margin varies, sometimes entire with a rounded tip, often slightly wavy, usually with 3 broad lobes at the tip. Lobes sometimes with bristle tips. Leaf stalk less than ¼ inch long. Leaves turn yellow in fall; brown leaves persist into winter.

White Oak

White oak is a large tree with a long, straight trunk and a broad, rounded crown.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 5–9 inches long, 2–4 inches wide; margin entire, with 6–10 lobes; lobes rounded at the tip; upper surface bright green, smooth, often shiny; lower surface whitened, smooth (without hairs). In fall, color can range from uninteresting browns to beautiful claret reds.

Bark is light gray, with shallow grooves and flat, loose ridges; large limbs and branches scaly.

Willow Oak

Willow oak is a medium to large tree with a dense, pyramidal crown (becoming more rounded with age) and straight, clear trunk.

Leaves are alternate, simple, 2–5 inches long, to 1 inch wide, shaped like willow leaves, narrow, gradually tapering at both ends, thick; margin entire, bristle-tipped. Leaves turn pale yellow in fall.

Bark is smooth, light reddish-brown on young trees; dark gray with rough, irregular, scale-covered plates and shallow grooves when older.

Twigs are slender, reddish-brown and hairy; gray and smooth with age.