Have an oak tree or planning to plant one? Learn everything you need to know about caring for an oak tree.
Sturdy, majestic, and long-lived easily describe oak trees. If you desire a regal and stately shade tree or specimen, you can’t go wrong planting an oak tree.
If you’re considering adding an oak tree to your landscape’s family of plants, we cover all the important details. Included below are details on popular oak types and their basic needs for healthy growth.
Continue reading to learn all about growing oak trees and using them in the landscape. By the end, you’ll know everything to keep your tree happy, healthy, and producing robust growth for years to come.
Oak trees belong in the family Fagaceae and in the genus Quercus. The genus is quite large, containing around 600 different species of trees and shrubs. North America claims the largest amount of different oak species. The United States alone claims over 90 different types of oak trees native to the area.
Oaks are incredibly long-lived, with a lifespan of over 1000 years.
Of all the many different oak trees, some are deciduous and others are evergreen, retaining their leaves year-round. Many deciduous types add a blast of brilliant color to winter landscapes.
All oaks sport enormous trunks, branches, and showy bark. Some types have branches that seem to curve and weave through an area, eventually touching the ground with age.
However, the most notable feature of oak trees is acorns. All acorns have cuplike caps. Though depending on the oak species, they differ in size and shape. Acorns are an important food source for wildlife.
Acorns produced from the white oak group take a year to mature and are edible by humans. The lobes on the leaves are rounded.
Acorns produced by oaks in the red and black group take two years to mature. They are usually too bitter to eat due to tannins. The lobes on this group’s leaves are pointed.
It can take up to 50 years for an oak to start producing acorns.
Oak Tree Varieties
Some of the more popular and common oak tree varieties and their characteristics are listed below:
White Oak (Quercus alba)
White oaks grow up to 80 tall and wide at a slow to moderate rate of speed. It’s hardy in USDA zones 6 to 9. The oak’s native range is from Florida to Maine and westward to Texas.
The oak has a deciduous habit producing red fall leaves. A mature white oak develops a showy rounded crown with massive branches. It’s typically wider than it is tall.
White oak trees grow best in a sunny to a partially sunny location. Deep, acidic soil kept moist through regular water applications produces the best growth.
White oaks are handsome trees with their wood being used to make barrels, flooring, or used as timber.
Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea)
Scarlet oak trees earn their name from the fall leaves changing to a brilliant red. The tree is hardy growing in USDA zones 6 to 9.
The oak tree has a deciduous habit. Mature trees grow around 70 feet tall with a width of 50 feet. It produces a tall open crown filled with glossy green leaves throughout the growing season. The grayish-brown bark is scaly. Scarlet oaks produce a deep root system.
For the best performance, grow scarlet oaks in a sunny location. The tree prefers deep, acidic soils that are well-drained. Scarlet oaks have a moderate tolerance to drought.
Scarlet oaks have a fast to moderate rate of growth.
Bur Oak (Quercus marcocarpa)
Bur oak trees are rugged native trees that also go by the common name mossycup oak due to the large acorns that are held in mossy cups. It’s hardy growing in USDA zones 3 to 8.
The oak tree has a deciduous habit. It forms into a large tree, reaching around 80 feet tall and wide at maturity. Bur oaks produce a rounded and open crown filled with glossy green leaves with white undersides. Fall leaf color is yellow. The grayish bark is deeply furrowed.
For the best performance, grow burr oak trees in full sun. The oak tree prefers soils that drain well but tolerates a wide range of soil conditions. Bur oaks have a high tolerance for drought conditions.
Although it can take up to 35 years to see the first acorn crop, bur oaks grow at a fast rate of speed.
Willow Oak (Quercus phellos)
Native willow oak trees grow into medium to large trees. The oak tree matures to a height of 40 to 75 feet with a spread of up to 50 feet. They are hardy growing in USDA zones 5 to 9.
Willow oaks have a deciduous habit. Trees produce a rounded canopy filled with bright green, willow-like leaves. Leaves have showy fall color, changing to hues of yellow and red before dropping. Of all the different species of oak trees, willow oaks sport the most delicate foliage.
The bark on immature trees is smooth. However, as the tree matures, it becomes grayish-brown with shallow furrows. Willow oaks have a strong branch structure.
Willow oak trees perform well in sunny to partially shady locations. It tolerates a wide range of acidic soil conditions from dry to those with poor drainage. Trees have a fast growth rate.
English Oak (Quercus robur)
Native to Europe, English oaks made their way to North American in the 1600s. The oak tree is hardy growing in USDA zones 6 to 8.
The majestic oak has a deciduous habit. Trees form a rounded canopy that is broad and spreading. The canopy fills with 3-inch dark green leaves that are greenish-blue on their undersides.
Acorns are 1 inch long. It can take English oaks 25 years to produce the first acorn crop.
English oaks have shorter trunks with black to gray bark. The bark has deep furrows.
For the best growth, English oaks prefer a site located in full sun. Although adaptable to a wide range of different soil conditions, the oak prefers a site with well-drained soil.
Trees grow at a moderate rate of speed.
Red Oak (Quercus rubra)
Native red oak trees earn their name from the red new foliage in spring and in the fall. The oak tree is hardy in USDA zones 6 to 8.
The fast-growing oak matures to a height and width of around 75 feet. It produces a round canopy with broad, spreading branches. The deciduous tree’s canopy fills with dark green leaves that are greenish-gray on their undersides.
Red oaks have smooth gray bark and have deep roots. It can take up to 40 years for the oak tree to produce the first crop of the flat, saucer-shaped acorns.
For the best performance, grow a red oak in full sun. The oak tree requires acidic soils that are loose and drain well.
Live Oak (Quercus virginiana)
A signature tree representing the Old South, live oaks are majestic, long-lived trees that make a statement. The oak tree is hardy growing in USDA zones 8 to 10.
The oak grows at a moderate rate of speed. Typically wider than tall, live oaks grow around 80 feet tall with a width of about 100 feet. Live oaks are best suited for larger landscapes due to their massive size.
Live oaks are evergreen, developing a rounded canopy with low-hanging branches. The tree’s canopy fills with leathery, dark green leaves. The oak leaves are whitish on their undersides. You can typically see a live oak’s branches draped in Spanish moss.
Trunks of live oaks are short and covered in dark, checked bark.
Grow live oak trees in a sunny location for the best growth. Although they adapt to a wide range of soil conditions, fertile soils that are well-drained and deep are best.
Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii)
Chinkapin oak trees earn their common name due to their foliage resembling that of a chestnut tree. The chestnuts are referred to as chinquapins and thus the common name. Chinkapin oaks are hardy in USDA zones 5 to 7.
The North American native forms into a medium-sized oak tree. Its mature size is typically around 40 to 60 feet tall and wide. The oak tree grows at a moderate rate of speed.
Chinkapin oaks form a rounded canopy filled with lush, glossy green, toothed leaves that grow up to 7 inches long. Foliage is deciduous. The small acorns taste sweet and are edible. However, don’t be disappointed if it takes 30 years before you see your first acorn crop.
Adding to the tree’s good looks and lush foliage is the light-colored bark.
The oak has a high drought-tolerance, tolerating a wide range of soils from dry to rocky. However, fertile and loamy soils produce the best growth. Grow the oak in a sunny location.
Water Oak (Quercus nigra)
As the name suggests, water oaks tolerate growing in wet conditions. The deciduous native tree is found growing along riverbanks and streams. Water oak trees are hardy growing in USDA zones 6 to 9.
Also going by the common name possum oak, the large native has a conical form. Mature trees quickly grow up to 80 feet tall and 60 feet wide.
The tree forms a dense, rounded canopy filled with 4-inch, bluish-green leaves that are deciduous. In southern portions of the oak’s range, the tree can perform as semi-evergreen.
For the best performance, grow a water oak in a sunny location. The oak prefers well-drained acidic soils kept moist through regular water applications.
Pin Oak (Quercus palustris)
Pin oak earns its common name from the tough, short branchlets that are located on the branches and limbs. The fast-growing, deciduous native is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8.
The oak tree has a pyramidal-shaped crown densely covered in glossy dark green leaves. Lower branches tend to dip towards the ground. The bark is brownish-gray and smooth while the tree is young. Once the oak puts on some age, it develops deep furrows.
Pin oaks bring fabulous fall color to yards with the foliage changing to shades of red and bronze.
As with all oak species, patience is needed as it can take up to 20 years before you see the first crop of acorns.
Grow pin oaks in a sunny location. Pin oaks grow well in acidic soils that are moist to wet. It also tolerates sites that occasionally flood.
Uses of Oaks
Despite their many uses in landscape designs, oaks have been useful for a variety of things throughout human history. For example, many treaties have been signed under the canopy of a white oak tree.
Oak wood’s qualities make it useful for various projects throughout the ages. It’s known to be hard, dense, and strong. Because it contains a high amount of tannin, the wood is resistant to insects and fungi attacks.
In fact, in the 9th and 10th centuries, Viking longships were manufactured from oak planking. In the Middle Ages, fine furniture and interior paneling were made from oak.
Before the 19th century, English ships were made from wood harvested from English oaks and willow oaks.
Nowadays, wood from the red oak is used for lumber. Oak wood is also used to make barrels for aging spirits like sherry, wine, and whiskey. The wood adds to the flavor.
If you’ve ever smoked food, you might have flavored it with small oak chips. The oak chips are typically used commercially to smoke and add flavor to various cheeses, meats, and fish.
General Care Guide
With so many different oak trees to choose from, it’s crucial to select one hardy in your climate. Appropriate soil conditions and the size of the proposed space are also important considerations. Some oaks prefer wet conditions and others thrive in dry. Also, some oak species require acidic soil – they won’t tolerate alkaline conditions.
Since many develop into large trees, choose a variety that will fit in the proposed space. You want it to be able to reach its mature size without interference. Therefore, don’t plant an oak close to a structure or under power lines.
It’s important to select a permanent site. Regardless of species, all oak trees don’t like their roots disturbed. They don’t transplant well.
In fact, grow the oak in a location where you won’t be parking cars under its canopy. You also don’t want to use pavers or concrete under them. Oaks don’t like the soil compacted.
It’s important to know your site’s soil conditions, as well as what the proposed oak tree prefers. You can almost guarantee health problems planting an oak requiring a dry site in a wet location. The soil’s makeup is also important for healthy growth. Oaks requiring acidic soil won’t thrive in an alkaline site. At worst, the oak will die.
For example, pin oaks and red oaks develop chlorosis when grown in alkaline soil. The trees will eventually meet their death. Both oak varieties require acidic soil to thrive.
However, oaks like the Chinkapin are better adapted to growing in alkaline soil conditions.
If your planting site tends to remain wet, select an oak that doesn’t mind having wet feet. Oaks like river oak and pin oak thrive in wetter locations.
Oak Tree Design Ideas
The vast majority of oaks make an impressive and imposing presence in the landscape. They are well-suited for homes containing a large yard. Oaks mature into large, stately trees with some canopies wider than the tree is tall. Larger oak trees can overpower a small yard.
Those with smaller yard spaces that don’t accommodate a large tree can grow shrubby varieties. Scrub oaks (Quercus berberidifolia) grow 15 feet tall and wide. The evergreen is hardy in USDA zones 6 to 10.
Oak trees make attractive, eye-catching specimens. They are sure to attract attention with their beauty highlighted in a front yard.
Need to beat the summer heat? Oaks make dense and robust shade trees. Depending on the variety, oaks give deep to filtered shade.
Oaks also make great additions to native, woodland, or wildlife gardens. The canopy offers shelter to various wildlife species. Falling acorns are a good food source for multiple animal species.
They even make a stately presence utilized around water features like ponds. Just be sure to use an oak that doesn’t mind wet feet.
Oak Tree Companion Plants
Some plants grow better under and around oaks than others do. If you’re adding something, just be sure it tolerates the same growing conditions as the oak. You don’t want to plant something that requires loads of fertilizer and water if you oak likes things on the dry side. Keep plants about 10 feet away from the trunk.
Companion groundcovers growing well with oak trees include:
- California Aster (Corethrogyne filaginifolia) – Yellow daisy-like flowers in summer.
- Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea) – Magenta flower spikes in summer.
- Yarrow (Achillea millifollum) – Small white flowers in late spring and summer.
- Dwarf Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) – Blue flowers most of the year.
Some companion shrubs that grow well close to oaks include:
- Rock Rose (Cistus ‘Sunset’) – Produces bright pink blooms in late summer.
- Wild Lilac (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus) – Fragrant, light blue flower spikes in spring.
- Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica) – Resembles an oak with attractive berries.
- Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) – Fragrant flower spikes in spring and summer.
Perennial plants that grow well close to oaks include:
- Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia uvaria) – Tall red and yellow flower stalks in summer.
- Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis sylvatica) – Blue flowers in spring.
- Mexican Sage (Salvia leucantha) – Purple flower spikes in summer.
- Society Garlic (Tulbaghia violacea) – Lavender flowers and foliage smells like onions.
Annuals growing well planted close to oaks include:
- Bachelors’ Button (Centaurea cyanus) – Blue or white flowers in summer.
- Garden Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) – Funnel-shaped, edible flowers in various hues.
- Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa atropurpurea) – Purple, pink or white summer blooms.
- California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) – Orange flowers in spring and summer.