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How to Identify the Oak Trees of Virginia

A group of acorns clustered on an oak tree branch.
cluster of acorns image by Richard Seeney from Fotolia.com

Around 27 species of oak trees (‌Quercus‌ spp.) are native to Virginia. Oak tree identification involves looking at characteristics such as leaf shape, bark color and texture, and the size and shape of acorns.

Common Oak Trees in Virginia

Species Group Leaves Acorns

White Oak

White

7-9 lobes; emerge pink

3/4 inch; scaly cups

Chestnut Oak

White

reminiscent of chestnut trees

1 1/4 inches, oval-shaped, warts on cups

Live Oak

White

evergreen and glossy

1 inch long; scaly cup

Northern Red Oak

Red

7-11 lobes; dark green; grayish-white undersides

3/4 inch, elliptical with a saucer-shaped cup

Southern Red Oak

Red

3-9 lobes; green above, pale green below

1/2 inch; round; half of acorn is covered by cap

Water Oak

Red

spatula-shaped; narrow

1/2 inch; round with wooly cups; black and brown alternating bands

Willow Oak

Red

long, narrow; reminiscent of willows

1/2 inch; round

Types of Oak Trees

Oak trees are divided into two groups: white oaks and red oaks. To figure out what group your tree belongs to, examine the leaves. The leaves of white oaks have rounded lobes, while the red oak tree leaves have sharp lobes.

The acorns of white oak trees also take just a year to mature, while those of species in the red oak group mature in two years.

White Oak Trees of Virginia

Let's take a look at some of the main white oak trees found in Virginia.

A close-up of the leaves and acorns of the white oak (Quercus alba).
Dcrjsr, CC 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

White Oak

The most common oak in Virginia is the white oak (‌Quercus alba‌, zones 3 to 9), which gets its name from its pale, ash-colored bark. In the wild, these oaks may be up to 100 feet tall.

The leaves of this tree are 4 to 9 inches long and have 7 to 9 deep lobes. The foliage has a pink tinge when it emerges, but mature leaves are a dark bluish-green above with pale undersides.

The acorns of the white oak are about 3/4 of an inch long and have cups covered in scales.

A close-up of the leaves and acorns of the chestnut oak (Quercus montana).
Judy Gallagher, CC 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Chestnut Oak

The chestnut oak (‌Quercus montana‌, zones 4 to 8) has toothed leaves with narrower bases than tops and resemble those of the American chestnut tree.

The leaves of the chestnut oak are dark green on top with gray-green underneath, while the undersides are covered in small hairs.

The chestnut oak produces acorns that are 1 1/4 inches in length.

A close-up of the leaves and acorns of the southern live oak (Quercus virginiana).
Phr~commonswiki, CC SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Live Oak

The southern live oak (‌Quercus virginiana‌, zones 8 to 10) is an evergreen with heights between 40 and 80 feet. Live oak tree leaves are oval or ellipse-shaped, with lengths of about 5 inches. The edges are smooth.

The acorns of the live oak are about 1 inch long. Approximately a third of the acorn is covered by a scaly cup. Like the acorns of other white oaks, those of the live oak mature in a single growing season.

In many parts of its range, you can identify southern live oaks because they are often covered in Spanish moss.

Red Oak Trees of Virginia

A close-up of the leaves and acorns of the northern red oak (Quercus rubra).
AnRo0002, CC 1.0 Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Northern Red Oak

Northern red oaks (‌Quercus rubra‌, zones 4 to 8) have shiny, dark green leaves. The undersides are a grayish white color. The leaves of this species have 7 to 11 lobes that are toothed and have sharp tips.

The acorns of the northern red oak have a cap that is shaped like a saucer and somewhat flat.

A close-up of the leaves of the southern red oak (Quercus falcata).
Katja Schulz, CC 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Southern Red Oak

Southern red oaks (‌Quercus falcata‌, zones 6 to 9) have leaves with lengths between 4 and 9 inches. The leaves are oval-shaped with 3 to 9 lobes. Even on the same tree, leaves can look quite different.

The leaves of the southern red oak are green on the upper sides and a pale green on the underside. The undersides are covered in small hairs.

The acorns are about 1/2 long inches and up to half of the acorn is covered by a cap.

A close-up of the leaves and acorns of the water oak (Quercus nigra).
USDA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Water Oak

The water oak (‌Quercus nigra‌, zones 6 to 9) has narrow leaves that are 2 to 4 inches long and 1 to 2 inches wide, with smooth margins. The leaves are oblong-shaped, reminiscent of a spatula, while the tips may be the entire leaf or have three lobes. The upper surfaces of water oak leaves are bluish-green, while the undersides are lighter in color and covered in hairs.

The acorns of the water oak have distinctive alternative black and brown bands. They are round in shape and measure 1/2 inch in length.

A close-up of the leaves and acorns of the willow oak (Quercus phellos).
Franklin Bonner, CC SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Willow Oak

The willow oak (‌Quercus‌ ‌phellos‌, zones 5 to 9) is one of the easiest oaks to identify because its long, narrow leaves with smooth edges resemble those of willow trees. The leaves may be 1 to 5 inches long and have a bristled tip.

The acorns of the willow oak are round and about a 1/2 inch long.

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