Set in the heart of the American Southwest, New Mexico is a large and geographically diverse state dominated by arid desert and rugged mountains. The dynamic terrain and varying climate of the state create a variety of distinct ecosystems, each providing habitat for species of native oaks. The native oaks of New Mexico vary wildly in appearance, displaying distinct physical adaptations used to withstand the sometimes harsh climate of the state.
Chinkapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) holds a limited range within New Mexico, occurring only in the high desert area of the southeast. It is a tall species, sometimes exceeding 100 feet in height, with an open, branching growth habit and scaly brownish-gray bark. The long, ovate leaves are glossy green in color with a subtle bluish sheen and deeply toothed edges. Before losing its leaves in early autumn, chinkapin oak bears a crop of small, rounded acorns that are valued for their sweet taste.
Small and shrubby, gambel oak (Quercus gambelii) occurs along foothills and mountain slopes throughout most of New Mexico, barring the extreme easterly portion of the state. It grows to between 10 and 60 feet in height depending on its habitat, reaching the higher end of its growth range in areas of high precipitation. Throughout much of New Mexico, gambel oak occurs as a shrub and is locally referred to as scrub oak due to its small size. Dense thickets of gambel oak form along sunny slopes, creating a natural hedgerow of bluish-green, lobed foliage. In late summer, it bears a crop of small, rounded acorns that are an important food source for many animal species.
Among the rarest oak trees in New Mexico, bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) only occurs in scattered locales in the easternmost portion of the state. It is an exceptionally large species, growing to 105 feet on average, with a broad spreading crown of deeply lobed leaves. Named for the bur-like appearance of its acorn cups, bur oak produces the largest nuts of any oak species. The nuts are sweet after minimal processing and were a favored food source of Native Americans in eastern New Mexico.
Gray oak (Quercus grisea) is found in greatest abundance within moist, protected canyon areas across most of New Mexico. Depending on its habitat, gray oak occurs as a large shrub or small tree reaching 30 feet in height. Named for the grayish cast of its foliage, gray oak forms a tidy silhouette with a rounded crown of ovate, fuzzy leaves. The bark is steel gray in color with a cracked appearance. Gray oak occurs with greatest frequency in Texas' Big Bend National Park, where it forms dense thickets along creeks and sheltered areas.
Shrub Live Oak
Found within the Rio Grande river valley, shrub live oak (Quercus turbinella) is a small, shrub-like tree seldom exceeding 15 feet in height. Its light, grayish-green leaves are stiff and leathery with spiny, toothed edges. A slightly waxen substance coast the undersides of the leaves, protecting the tree from excessive moisture loss. Throughout most of its range, shrub live oak produces dense thickets, seldom appearing as a single specimen. In late summer, shrub live oak bears a crop of small yellow acorns that provide a valuable source of forage for many animals species across the region.