The state tree of both Illinois and Connecticut is the white oak (Quercus alba). This oak tree grows in a large portion of the eastern United States. The trees may live for hundreds of years if left undisturbed. The tree also goes by the name stave oak, thanks to the wood's use in making barrels.
White oak trees grow up to 100 feet in height, and the crown can reach up to 80 feet in width. The bark of the tree is whitish gray, and the trunk can grow to 4 feet in diameter. Sometimes the bark scales off, leaving smooth patches on the trunk. The tree’s light green leaves sport 7 to 9 rounded edges, growing up to 9 inches in length and up to 4.5 inches in width. Inconspicuous flowers bloom in the spring as the leaves start appearing. Both male and female flowers grow on the same tree; red blossoms indicate female flowers and yellow clusters indicate male flowers. The trees depend on the wind to pollinate. In the fall, the leaves turn beautiful shades of red.
White oaks grow in deciduous forests along with other hardwood trees. The trees primarily grow in an area extending from Maine west to Minnesota and south to Texas, then back east to northern Florida.
The trees start producing acorns once the tree reaches about 20 years of age. The fruits appear singularly or in clusters of two or three nuts. The oblong nuts reach up to a quarter inch in length. Acorns consist of a light gray, hairy cup that covers the top third of the nut. The nut itself appears greenish-brown. While the tree produces acorns every year, during some years huge crops of nuts appear, and these are called mast years. The large crops occur about every four to 10 years.
White oak trees thrive in rich, moist soil that drains well. The trees also grow in drier soil. Preferring full to partial sun, the trees will grow in the shade when young, but require more sun as they get older. White oaks grow in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 9.
As a hardwood, white oak produces a coarse-grained, heavy wood used for a variety of products, including furniture, cabinets and flooring. The tree also provides firewood and fence post material. Native Americans used the tree as a source of medicine to treat diarrhea, chapped skin and mouth sores. They also used concoctions made from the tree to treat respiratory problems, such as asthma and coughs.
The acorns from the white oak tree provide a valuable food source for small mammals and birds, such as squirrels, turkeys and upland game birds. The gypsy moth relies on white oak trees as an important food source, too, but unfortunately their feeding often causes the tree to die.
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