Rick’s Native Plant of the Month | White Oak (Quercus alba)

February 13, 2024

By Rick Bogusch

Bridge Gardens

This native tree can be found throughout the eastern United States, including Long Island, where it is one of the dominant species in the mixed oak coastal forests commonly found here. White oak is a large tree, especially when grown in the open, reaching 50-60 feet tall and wide. Pyramidal when young, it is rounded in shape and wide-spreading with age.

Yellow-green male and female flowers appear separately on the same tree in early May after leaves emerge. Mature leaves are large, 4-9 inches long, dark blue-green above and pale beneath, with deeply rounded lobes. Fall color can be warm brown or a mix of brown and red or purple. Acorns ripen their first year, unlike red oaks, and fall in early October. Relished by turkeys, jays, woodpeckers, rabbits and squirrels, they are usually about ¾-inch long, with a warty cap that covers ¼ of the nut. Bark is ashy gray on mature trees, often peeling in narrow, vertical strips. Buds are stoutly oval in shape, brown or reddish brown and clustered at branch tips.


White oak is typically found on dry upland slopes, as well as in ravines and lowlands. Best in fertile, moist, acidic loams in full sun, it is also tolerant of dry conditions and shallow, rocky soils. Though its slow rate of growth limits desirability as a landscape tree, there is no finer native shade or specimen tree. Individuals can live for 200-300 years or more and personify strength and longevity. Open-grown specimens stand out from a distance, often with low-hanging branches that grow parallel to the ground and create a “room” beneath.

White oak is called white, because its wood is lighter than most oaks. An important timber tree since colonization began, it has been used for buildings, boats and barrels, and is what Gustav Stickley preferred to make his mission-style furniture. Indigenous people made sturdy, durable baskets from strips of white oak wood.

All oaks are important food sources for countless species of insects and white oak is no exception. At least 22 species of insects we hardly ever see, plus many moths and butterflies, feed on its leaves. They in turn feed birds and other wildlife, making white oak an important source of biodiversity wherever it grows. We are fortunate to have several white oaks at Bridge Gardens in our mixed oak-hickory-beech woodland.

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