What is a Northern Red Oak?

Anna Harrison
Anna Harrison
Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

A northern red oak is a large, deciduous tree that grows throughout the U.S. and southern Canada. Its botanic name is Quercus rubra and it is also known as champion oak, Ashford oak, and Chase Creek oak. This tree is known for its prolific production of acorns during the fall, which attracts wildlife such as deer, squirrels, and chipmunks. Northern red oak is highly valued for its very hard lumber, which is used in building construction and to make furniture, flooring, and decking.

The northern red oak grows quickly, and when mature can reach as tall as 90 feet (28 m) or more. The trunks of these trees can measure 40 inches (100 cm) across and occasionally grow as much as 5 feet (1.5 m) across or even wider. This species is very long lived, with individual trees that are known to be over 300 years old.

These trees are easily identified by their oblong, dark green leaves, which have between seven and nine lobes. They are among the last leaves to change color in fall, though they turn an unimpressive dark reddish brown. The red oak also holds its leaves longer than most other deciduous trees. The bark of this tree is a brownish gray, or dark brown on older trees, and grows in strips down the length of the trunk. The bark has a high tannic acid content and was used in the past to color leather in tanning factories.

Northern red oak trees do not produce acorns until they are about 20 years old, though optimum production does not occur until they are around 50 years old. Large quantities are usually produced only every few years. If left on the ground, cold winter weather will break the dormancy of these nuts, and countless oak seedlings will appear in the spring. Very few of these seedlings survive to become trees, due to overcrowding, poor soil, and inadequate sunlight.

These trees prefer acidic soil and a high humus content, although they will grow in gravelly or sandy soil as well, and will tolerate clay. They do not do well in areas that are extremely wet or in deep shade. Red oaks need bright sunlight and well drained loamy soil for optimum growth.

These trees are susceptible to damage from gypsy moth and tent caterpillars, who can deforest large areas in one season. When the leaves are repeatedly eaten for two or three years, the tree can die. The northern red oak is prone to fungal diseases such as oak wilt, which clogs up the vessels that absorb water, causing the leaves to turn brown and fall off of the tree. This disease can kill a red oak tree in just a month or two. Trees that are infected with oak wilt have to be destroyed, although they can be used as firewood.

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