What is a White Oak Tree?

G. Melanson

Also known as quercus alba, the white oak tree is a hardwood tree native to eastern North America. White oaks also populate the southern forested areas of Quebec, Canada; stretching as far west as Minnesota and as far south as Florida. Part of the Fagaceae family, the white oak tree is a long-enduring hardwood, and some white oaks have lived to be over 600 years old. However, the white oak tree is not known to reach great heights, and typically stands at around 20 meters (65.6 ft) when fully-grown. At high altitudes, this tree is sometimes around the same height as a shrub.

An oak barrel.
An oak barrel.

Despite its name, the white oak tree rarely bares white bark, and is typically ashen gray in color. In the springtime, its budding leaves are iridescent pink with a soft, downy coating, giving the white oak a somewhat frosted appearance. During autumn, the leaves will turn brown or red and sometimes even purple. The white oak tree is also distinguishable by the texture of its bark, which becomes scaled or plated roughly halfway up the length of the trunk.

The USS Constitution was made from wood of the white oak tree.
The USS Constitution was made from wood of the white oak tree.

White oak trees yield their acorns in October, providing food for such wildlife as squirrels, rabbits, turkeys, pheasants, and deer. Compared to other oak trees, the white oak’s acorns are smaller and less bitter tasting. Native Americans also used the white oak tree’s acorns as a source of food.

The white oak tree can be found in both moist and dry habitats, including valleys, ridges, lowlands, or mountaintops. The soil levels found in urban areas are incompatible with the white oak tree’s nutrient requirements; however, it can grow in sheltered suburban environments. The states of Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland have all declared the white oak their official state tree. Connecticut is home to the Charter Oak of Hartford, one of the best-known white oak trees in the United States. One of the oldest living oak trees, the Wye Oak in Maryland, was unearthed by a thunderstorm 2002.

The wood of the white oak tree is used to make many things, including whine barrels, ships, and indoor and outdoor furniture. Even the USS Constitution was fashioned from white oak wood. The wood is also commonly exported from North America to Japan, where it is valued for its resilience, and used to fashion weapons for Japanese martial arts.

White oak leaves turn brown or red in the autumn.
White oak leaves turn brown or red in the autumn.

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