The white oak (Quercus alba) is a long-lived tree used for shade in landscapes and it is one of the most important timber species in the United States. The “National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees” reports that the white oak has the nickname stave oak, since its wood is integral in making barrels. Shipbuilders in colonial times valued the wood as well. Today, white oak goes into products such as flooring, furniture and beams. The white oak’s range includes most of the eastern United States. The tree is vital to the animals that exist where it grows.
While some of the biggest white oaks measure as tall as 150 feet, the average tree of this species grows between 80 and 100 feet high. The trunk's diameter can exceed 4 feet and the tree takes on a broad round look when mature. On some individual white oaks, the lower branches become gnarled and grow horizontal to the ground.
The leaves of the white oak is about 5 inches long and 3 inches wide, with from seven to nine round-ended lobes on each leaf. The upper sides are a blue-green color, with the underneath surface a whitish shade of green. The white oak's wood when first cut is light beige to almost white, an aspect of the tree that gives it its name. The grayish bark features grooves and rectangular scales, with deep grooves appearing at the bottom portion of the trunk on older white oaks.
The acorns produced by the white oak are a major source of food in the tree's ecosystem. These fruits are about 1 1/4 ich long, egg-shaped with a shallow cap and need but one season to grow to maturity. A wide array of birds, from turkeys and quails to blue jays and crows, depend on them in the fall for nutrition. In addition, mammals as large as the black bear and the deer and as tiny as voles and mice will include the acorns in their diets. Populations of some species fluctuate in proportion to the amount of white oak acorns available each year.
A variety of insects will launch attacks on a white oak, notes the United States Forest Service site, among them the larvae of the gypsy moth. The caterpillars, when present in large numbers, may defoliate sections of the tree. Other bug pests like the oakleaf caterpillar, orange-striped oakworm and walkingstick can devour foliage. Economically, the most significant insect that bothers white oak are the wood borers, which can cause defects in the lumber of still-standing trees.
The University of Connecticut Plant Database website observes that builders will often try to save a white oak at a construction site as a shade tree for later use. The white oak is difficult to transplant successfully and grows slowly, making a full-grown oak even more valuable. The ornamental appeal in the autumn includes leaves that change to different shades of purple and red before falling off.
- Ohio Department of Natural Resources: White Oak
- University of Connecticut Plant Database: White Oak
- University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences: White Oak
- "National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mammals"; John O. Whitaker, Jr.; 2008
- "National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees"; Elbert L. Little; 2008