What is a Scarlet Oak?

M. Haskins
M. Haskins
Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

Scarlet oak is the common name of an oak species native to the eastern United States and south-eastern Canada. It is so named because of its striking red fall foliage. Its scientific name is Quercus coccinea, and it grows wild from southern Ontario to eastern Oklahoma and as far south as Alabama, being especially common along the Ohio River where growing conditions are very favorable. Scarlet oak grows 65 to 98 feet (about 20 to 30 m) tall and has an open, rounded crown. It is often planted as an ornamental tree because of its shape and because of its autumn color.

The scarlet oak is also often used as a shade tree and is widely planted outside its native habitat both in North America and Europe. The wood is used for various purposes, such as house construction, furniture, flooring and railroad ties. It is often marketed as red oak, though it is inferior to genuine red oak wood.

The tree's bark is grayish-brown with narrow ridges, but it turns darker brown with broader ridges as the tree ages. Its leaves are smooth, glossy and dark green; they normally grow to about 3 to 7 inches (7 to 17 cm) long and 3 to 5 inches (about 8 to 13 cm) broad and have pointed leaf edges. The acorns mature over two growing seasons and are very bitter. Scarlet oak produces smaller crops of acorns than many other oak species, but they are still an important food source for many wild animals such as chipmunks, deer, voles and mice as well as such birds as wild turkeys, blue jays and red-headed woodpeckers.

The scarlet oak is a rapid-growing tree that can thrive in a variety of soils, but it prefers light and sandy soil that is well-drained. It grows best in full sun and can tolerate moderately dry conditions better than many other oak species. Scarlet oak can be difficult to transplant, but its rapid growth and brilliant fall color still make it a popular tree for parks, streets and gardens.

Like all oak trees, scarlet oak is susceptible to oak wilt, a fungal disease that can cause an oak tree to lose all its leaves and can even kill it. It is also prone to butt rot, another disease caused by fungus that attacks the lowest part of the tree trunk. Butt rot can weaken or even kill a tree if it spreads to the roots or inside the trunk. Scarlet oak can also be damaged by insects, such as oak leaf eaters and gypsy moths as well as ants and wasps, especially if it is already weakened by poor growing conditions or if its wood has been damaged by accidents or weather.

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