Many species of oak trees have wide distributions in the eastern United States, with North Carolina falling within the range of several types. Oaks exist in the hilly and mountainous western section as well as on the coastal plains toward the Atlantic. North Carolina’s oaks can grow under a variety of conditions, with some requiring rich soil to reach their potential and others able to grow just about anywhere in the state.
Northern Red Oak
The northern red oak (Quercus rubra) commonly exists in the western three-fifths of North Carolina. This type of oak tree grows to between 70 and 90 feet tall and can have a trunk 2 to 3 feet wide. The northern red oak is a very valuable oak, with its wood used for such purposes as flooring. The tree also makes an excellent shade species. The tree’s light red-brown heartwood gives it its name. The leaves are as long as 8 inches, have as many as 11 pointed lobes and can turn yellowish, red or tan in the fall. Northern red oak is one of the less problematic oaks to transplant and grows relatively fast for an oak, according to the University of Connecticut Plant Database website. Northern oak does best in full sun and in well-drained, fertile loam. In North Carolina, this species grows alongside trees such as basswood and white ash, among others.
The willow oak (Quercus phellos) has leaves very different from the majority of oaks, resembling those of a willow species. The elongated leaves can be 5 inches in length, lack lobes and have smooth edges except for the tip, where a bristle exists. Willow oaks in North Carolina grow in every scenario except for the higher elevations in the mountains. The tree, which can be 100 feet tall, often flourishes near rivers and wetlands. Willow oak withstands air pollution and drought, making it a good choice for urban settings. Landscapers use the willow oak as a street tree, on parking lot islands, as a buffer between house lots and for use as a shade species. The tree has the ability to produce a large crop of acorns, which in turn will lure squirrels.
The blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica) is one of the smaller oaks, growing between 20 and 30 feet. The tree has a reputation as being able to grow in less than ideal conditions and in poor soils. The wood has no real value and often winds up burned to produce charcoal. Blackjack oak frequnetly grows alone or with pine trees that can exist in the same settings. Blackjack oak grows all over North Carolina with only the highest points of the mountains lacking this species. The leathery leaves are from 4 to 8 inches long and have hairy, brownish undersides. The leaves have what the Plant Information Center website describes as a “bell shape,” with a broader appearance at the ends where three rounded lobes are. The bark of this oak is one of its best features, as it is blackish, rough and in almost square plates.
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