Quercus rubra

Northern Red Oak

Northern Red Oak
Photo courtesy Wisconsin State Herbarium and Kenneth J. Sytsma

Flora, fauna, earth, and sky...
The natural history of the northwoods


  • Quercus, the Latin for Oak
  • rubra, from the Latin, ruber, "red"
  • Common name from the reddish color of the wood.
  • Other common names include Chêne Rouge (Qué)


  • Kingdom Plantae, the Plants
    • Division Magnoliophyta, the Angiosperms (flowering plants)
      • Class Magnoliopsida, the Dicotyledons
      • Subclass Hamamelidae
        • Order Fagales
          • Family Fagaceae, the Beeches
            • Genus Quercus, the Oaks
  • Taxonomic Serial Number: 19408
  • Also known as Quercus borealis, Quercus maxima
  • A member of the Red Oak subgroup, it hybridizes with related species, including Northern Pin Oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis).




  • Southern Ontario to the Gaspé, south to Minnesota, Iowa, eastern Kansas and Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
  • At the northern limits of its range in the North Woods.


  • Northern red oak grows on a variety of dry-mesic to mesic sites. It occurs in rich, mesic woods, on sandy plains, rock outcrops, stable interdunes, and at the outer edges of floodplains. Northern red oak is most common on north- and east-facing slopes. It typically grows on lower and middle slopes, in coves, ravines, and on valley floors.
  • Overstory associates of northern red oak are numerous and include in our region, eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), sugar maple, red maple (Acer rubrum), black cherry (Prunus serotina), American basswood (Tilia americana), green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), aspen (Populus tremuloides), jack pine (Pinus banksiana), eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), and elm (Ulmus americana). serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) are frequent small tree associates. Common understory shrubs and vines include blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), beaked hazel (Corylus cornuta), poison-ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), grape (Vitis spp.)


  • Northern red oak is well adapted to periodic fires. Older, larger individuals often survive fire and young, small trees typically resprout vigorously from the stump or root collar. Postfire seedling establishment has also been reported. Fire is integrally associated with oak forests. Many researchers maintain that recurrent fires are the key to oak dominance in some areas. As a result of increased fire suppression, oak forests have been replaced by mesic sugar maple communities.
  • Declines of oak forests have been noted throughout much of the East and are often attributed to reduced fire frequency. Historic fire frequencies of approximately 22 years have been reported for maple-basswood forests of Minnesota, in which northern red oak occurs as a dominant.
  • Northern red oak occurred on relatively mesic sites in presettlement oak savannas of the Upper Midwest. In the absence of recurrent fires, these savannas are replaced by closed mixed mesophytic forests within 20 to 40 years.
  • Northern red oak is apparently more susceptible to fire than many other species of oak. The tight, solid bark is typically more seriously damaged than the rough, corky bark of species such as white oak [55]. Mortality is higher for smaller northern red than for larger trees. Large trees can survive bark scorch on up to 66 percent of their circumference. However, severe wildfires occasionally kill pole and even sawtimber-sized individuals. Pole-sized and larger northern red oaks typically survive prescribed fires which top-kill the plants. Seedlings may be killed by such fires, but root collars or belowground regenerative structures often survive even when plants are top-killed.
  • Most acorns are characterized by a relatively high moisture content. As the moisture within the acorns is heated, the seeds swell and often rupture. Therefore, few acorns present on-site survive fire.
  • Oaks tend to be less susceptible to fire during the dormant season. Individuals of poor vigor are less likely to heal following fire-induced injury than are healthy vigorous specimens. Oaks growing in overstocked stands typically exhibit lower vigor and are more susceptible to fire-caused damage. Crooked or leaning trees are particularly susceptible to damage since the flames are more likely to be directly below the stem, thereby increasing the amount of heat received by the bark's surface. Mortality or serious injury increases with greater fire severity. Mortality of seedlings may be correlated with temperatures near the root collars.
  • Northern red oak is generally more severely fire-scarred than many other oaks. When basal cambial tissue is seriously damaged by fire, injuries often permit the entry of insects or decay that may ultimately kill the tree. Toole reported that by the 2d year after fire, 60 percent of wounded northern red oaks was infested by insects. Heart rot spread to 2.5 times the height of the bark discoloration within 7 years of the fire. Heart rot progressed more slowly where the original fire scar represented less than 20 percent of the tree's circumference and more rapidly where the fire scar was more extensive. Rouse [98] estimated that rot traveled up the bole of a fire-damaged tree at 1.25 feet (0.4 m) per decade.
  • Young northern red oaks commonly sprout vigorously from the stumps or root collar after aboveground portions of the plant are killed by fire. Stem density is often increased as fire promotes sprouting and reduces competition. Frequent fire can produce oak scrublands.
  • Large oaks that survive fire frequently serve as seed sources. Dying trees often produce a massive seed crop. Acorns often germinate well on mineral soil, and establishment may actually be favored in burned areas.
  • Rouse reported that most large oaks are "capable of minimizing fire-caused losses due to damaged cambium by rerouting the functions of fire-killed portions within weeks after a fire."
  • Seedlings, saplings, and pole-sized individuals commonly sprout if girdled by fire. Damaged seedlings can often resprout several times and may ultimately grow beyond the fire-susceptible stage. Sprouting ability appears to decrease as plants age. Large trees much less likely to sprout if severely damaged by fire.


  • Birds: Acorns of the northern red oak are an important food source the bobwhite, red-headed woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, blue jay, tufted titmouse, grackle, white-breasted nuthatch, sapsuckers, quail, ruffed grouse, and other birds. They represent a particularly important food source for the wild turkey. A single turkey can consume more than 221 acorns at a "single meal" [95]. Other birds that feed on acorns include the ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, ring-necked pheasant, wild turkey, eastern crow, northern flicker, grackle, blue jay, brown thrasher, tufted titmouse, starling, lesser prairie chicken, chickadees, nuthatches, and other songbirds. Acorns are also important food sources for various waterfowl such as the golden-eye, gadwall, wood duck, hooded merganser, mallard, American pintail, black duck, redhead, and green-winged teal. Sprouted acorns are readily eaten by deer, mice, and the northern bobwhite.
  • Browse: White-tailed deer commonly browse leaves and young seedlings. Elk, hares, cottontail rabbits, and moose also feed on northern red oak browse.
  • Acorns: Mammals - The white-footed mouse, eastern chipmunk, fox squirrel, gray squirrel, red squirrel, white-tailed deer, flying squirrels, and deer mice consume northern red oak acorns.
  • Acorns of the northern red oak are a preferred fall and winter food of the gray squirrel. Acorns are an important fall food source for the black bear. The abundance of fall mast crops can affect black bear reproductive success during the following year.


  • During the last Ice Age retreated with other hardwoods to the relative shelter of the lower Mississippi Valley but appears to have maintained itself in isolated pockets within the White Spruce forest to the north, allowing it to become one of the first hardwoods to move north as the ice sheets melted. In this effort it was greatly assisted by the acorn spreading capabilities of the Blue Jay.
  • First cultivated in 1724, it is a popular ornamental shade tree in eastern North America and parts of Europe.


  • Red oak is very similar in many ways to white oak. A major difference is the red is very porous. It is a heavy wood and averages 44 pounds a cubic foot. It has a specific gravity ranging from .52 to .60. Red oak is considered by many to be the most beautiful of the oak families. The wood has an attractive amber color with a reddish tinge. It requires the same finishing techniques as white oak.
  • Northern red oak is an important source of hardwood lumber. Its wood is heavy, hard, strong, coarse-grained, and at least moderately durable. When properly dried and treated, oak wood glues well, machines very well, and accepts a variety of finishes.
  • The wood of northern red oak has been used to make railroad ties, fenceposts, veneer, furniture, cabinets, paneling, flooring, caskets, and pulpwood.
  • Northern red oak has a high fuel value and is an excellent firewood.



  • By seed


  • Hardy to USDA Zone 3 (average minimum annual temperature -40ºF)
  • Cultural Requirements
    • Full sun (shade intolerant)
    • Fertile, sandy, finely-textured soils with good drainage, pH 4.3 - 6.5
    • Dry to medium moisture
  • Size 40'-80'W x 75'H
  • Northern red oak is commonly planted as a landscape tree in eastern North America and Europe -- used as a shade tree on lawns, parks, campuses, golf courses, etc, where space is sufficient. It is fast growing, easy to transplant, tolerant of urban conditions (including dry and acidic soil and air pollution), the abundant nuts attract wildlife, and the leaves develop a brick-red fall color.
  • Generally a durable and long-lived tree. Susceptible to oak wilt which is a systemic fungal disease that has no cure. Chlorosis (yellowing of the leaves while the veins remain green) often occurs when soils are not sufficiently acidic.



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Last updated on 4 March, 2006