The stately red oak (Quercus rubra) possesses features and characteristics that are not typical of oak trees in general. Even in its youth the tree's leafy canopy is rounded rather than pyramid-like, it transplants easily, grows fast and develops shallow roots when compared to other oaks, making it more prone to the ill effects of prolonged droughts. The red oak is a good shade or street tree that thrives in USDA hardiness zones 3 through 7.
The red oak hails from a native range extending from Minnesota eastward across Ontario, Canada, to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia and then southward to Arkansas, Alabama and North Carolina. It is often called northern red oak to help distinguish it from the southern red oak (Quercus falcata), which is much less hardy in winter cold.
The red oak is a long-lived deciduous tree with a singular trunk. Its branches are angled upward and spread to create a rounded canopy that matures 60 to 75 feet tall and wide. The leaves emerge in spring with an attractive bronze-red color before unfurling and maturing into dark glossy green blades. The leaf comprises seven to 11 bristled lobes and turn shades of red, russet and yellow-tan in mid- to late autumn. Tiny flowers emerge just before leaves in mid-spring and only the female blossoms develop into 1-inch diameter gray-kissed brown acorns. These fruits are among the first acorns to ripen among all oak species in North America, according to Dr. Michael Dirr of the University of Georgia.
Besides being an excellent park, lawn or street tree, the wood of the red oak is used to create beams, boards, railroad ties and furniture. Its early maturing acorns remain an important food for squirrels, deer, turkey, mice, voles, and other mammals and birds.
Red oaks should be planted in a sunny spot in a spacious landscape setting that receives at least eight hours of direct sunlight reaches it daily. Although tolerant of a wide array of soil types from moist to dry and alkaline to acidic, the best growing condition is an acidic, sandy loam that is moist but well-draining. Highly alkaline soil leads to chlorosis, a nutritional deficiency causing yellowed foliage.
Red oak trees transplant better than most other oak species but is best planted when young from a container or balled and burlapped root ball. Although the red oak grows well on dry sites, extremely dry soils leads to leaf abortion and young twig dieback. The U.S. Forest Service mentions that trees native to the westernmost parts of the native range tend to tolerate drier soils and hotter summer temperatures better than trees native to more easterly regions. Although the red fall foliage is reliable, in some years with less than optimal weather or moisture the leaves may only turn to yellow and tan with hints of red. Don not plant red oak over patio or sidewalk areas as the fallen acorns pose a walking hazard.
Wildfires can cause severe damage to the growth layer under the bark near the trunk of red oaks, resulting in invasion by harmful fungi such as shoestring root rot. Oak wilt, especially common in the middle portion of the United States, is spread by beetles and once infected will kill a tree within a year, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Other concerns include catastrophic defoliation by gypsy moth larvae, particularly in the Northeast United States, and other caterpillars that cause the tree to expend energy to flush new foliage.