How to Identify the Oak Trees of Virginia


Virginia is fortunate to have two diverse ecological and geographical influences on the trees of the state. In the west, there is the Appalachians, where deciduous oaks from a more northern climate are able to grow. Then in the south and east, there is the northern extension of the southern coastal plain, a region of dry sandy ridges interspersed with rich swampy bottom lands. These two areas combine to provide Virginia with a rich oak flora.

Things You'll Need

  • Guidebook to trees of the Eastern United States

Deciduous Oaks

  • Look at the edge of the leaf for indentations versus lobes. An oval leaf falls in the latter category. If the leaf is indented set it aside for later. If not, give the shape of the leaf a close examination.

  • Look again at the leaf. A small narrow, light-colored leaf should indicate a willow oak, while a dark wide oval structure that is 4 inches long or more should indicate a shingle oak. To further aid identification take note that the willow oak likes coastal wetlands, while the shingle oak is found along well-drained ridges in the west.

  • Pick up the lobed leaf and study the indentations. Deep, even indentations indicate a white oak, while an indented, lobed leaf that is wide at the top indicates a post oak.

  • Look again at the edge of the leaf. An oval leaf with small even lobes (or bumps) is a swamp chestnut oak. The black oak has deeper lobed indications and is very wide at the top. The water oak is also very wide at the top, but has no indentations.

Evergreen Oaks

  • Look at the evergreen leaf to see if it is oval shaped. If your leaf is not oval, then it is probably not an evergreen oak leaf. The main candidate in this case is the American holly.

  • Examine the leaf to see if the leave is curled under at the edge. If it is, you have a sand live oak, which occasionally grows on coastal sand dunes or in the nearby forest.

  • If the leaf is flat, you have a southern live oak.

Red Oaks

  • Look closely at the leaves set aside from the first step in the first section. You should have a leaf with deep indentations and bristle tips. If the indentations are very deep and each lobe is narrow you should have a pin oak.

  • Take another look at the leaf. If the leaf has a downy underside and several long lobes without deep indentations, then you probably have a southern red oak, which is sometimes called a Spanish oak.

  • Study the indentations and the color of the leaf. A dark green leaf with many shallow indentations is likely a northern red oak; the scarlet oak will have wide indentations of medium depth. These series of red oaks are the hardest to tell apart, so having a tree guide with you will be helpful.

  • Look again at the outside of the leaf. The chestnut oak will have many serrated teeth, but no indentations in the leaf.


  • Photo Credit shenandoah image by John Keith from
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