The red oak (Quercus rubra) is one of the eastern United States’ major timber species, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website. The same is true for the Midwest, which is as far west as this tree grows in the wild. Red oaks are also an important tree in terms of landscaping, providing both shade and autumn color. The species has the alternate name northern red oak and supplies food and shelter for birds and mammals.
The typical red oak can easily be 60 feet tall and many will grow up to 80 feet. Red oaks that exist in the open usually have a short trunk, with some as wide as 3 feet. The Floridata website says that these red oaks will grow many big limbs starting at about 15 to 20 feet off the ground. Red oaks in a forest scenario will have longer trunks and few branches until much further up on the tree.
Red oaks have leaves between 5 and 9 inches long; the leaves possess 7, 9 or 11 lobes. Each individual lobe will have three pointed “teeth” and tiny bristles on their ends. The sinuses, or the spaces between the lobes, differ from one tree to another. Some are deep and come close to the center of the leaf, while others are much shallower. Red oak leaves can turn a deep brick red in autumn, but some years the leaves change to a yellow-brown hue.
Red oak bark on the mature tree is a dark shade of brown that is almost dark enough to be black. The bark has ridges and furrows on these aged specimens, but the bark on the developing red oak is smooth and almost shiny. It is gray and reflects sunlight on a winter day. The acorns of red oak are oblong with flat saucer-like cups attached to them. The acorns take two years to develop from the small female flowers and have a bitter taste. Birds and animals like deer and squirrels will dine on these acorns, which are about 1 inch long.
The red oak sapling can survive in partial shade but eventually requires full sun to reach its maximum height. The best setting for a red oak is in sandy loam that has a tendency to be either neutral or somewhat acidic. Water this species on a regular basis, especially as it grows. The tree is a northern species and it will not fare as well in warmer climates. Expect heavy crops of acorns every two to five years. Transplanting red oaks is usually problem-free.
Once established, the red oak is a rapid grower. The tree is capable of adding 2 feet each year and in 20 years has the ability to start producing its acorns. Cultivars such as the Splendens variety feature brilliant red foliage come autumn. Another called Aurea has leaves that emerge as a shade of yellow. The Schrefeldi hybrid has leaves with very deep sinuses. Red oaks can withstand poor air quality causes by pollution and in coastal areas the salt spray from the ocean will not adversely affect it. The species gets its colorful name from the orange-red wood and its red fall leaves.