Eastern White Oak: Connecticut State Tree and So Much More
“If the oak is the king of trees, as tradition has it, then the Eastern White Oak, throughout its range, is the king of kings.” — Donald Culross Peattie from “A Natural History of North American Trees”
The last several years have been hard on oak trees in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and throughout much of southern New England. The worst were the successive dry years of 2015, 2016 and 2017, when a bloom of gypsy moth caterpillars defoliated many oaks due to the caterpillars’ preference for oak leaves. After multiple years of losing their life-giving leaves, many oaks succumbed. In some places, it seemed the oldest and largest of the oaks were hit the hardest, including many tall, stately eastern white oaks. Today I want to explore the history and characteristics of this oak species and provide some perspective on this important and unique tree.
In our region there are two oak groups, the red oaks (with deep, red-colored wood), and white oaks (with rich, white-colored wood). The red oak group includes northern red oak, black oak and scarlet oak, and the white oak group includes eastern white oak, post oak, swamp white oak and chestnut oak.
It’s easy to identify a red oak from a white oak by the leaves. Red oak leaves have toothed or sharp edges, and white oak leaves have lobed or rounded edges. The acorns of the red oaks take two years to mature, while the acorns of the white mature in one year.
One of my favorite naturalist writers is Hal Borland. Here is his description of eastern white oak from his book, “A Countryman’s Woods.”
“White Oak – Quercus alba: The eastern white oak is commonly considered to be the toughest, most durable of all our common forest trees. It isn’t really, but in overall quality it comes in either at or close to the top. The British in Colonial days scorned the American oak for their ships, but we built our own ships of our own oak and proved that they were equal to or better than the British ones. And on land we have used oak, primarily white oak, for stout timbers in blockhouses, mills, bridges, barns, log cabins and other structures. It has been the best all-round hardwood in America. White pine warps less, hickory is more resilient, locust is more durable. But our white oak stands second in each category.”
“This tree grows to tremendous size, with a spread of more than a hundred and twenty-five feet, a trunk of twenty-five or more feet in circumference, and a height of ninety to a hundred feet. It is a beautiful tree. When its leaves first burst from bud in the spring they clothe the white oak with a mist of red that slowly turns to pink before the true green of the leaves. In the autumn the foliage turns a rich red, the color of Burgundy wine, then fades to various shades of brown. And the leaves tend to cling to the branches all winter.”
“The white oak acorns, maturing the first year, are choice food for squirrels and birds. When they fall and come into contact with the soil they soon germinate and thrust roots into the ground before hard frost. Those acorns can be eaten raw, like chestnuts, but they are sweeter if they are boiled or roasted first.”
In “Oak: The Frame of Civilization,” author William Bryant Logan painstakingly describes the role oaks played in many cultures regarding the expansion of civilization. Across the globe and throughout the northern temperate zone there are about 450 species of trees and shrubs consisting of the genus Quercus. Oaks are found in locations of settled societies of Asia, Europe and North America. North America has the largest number of oak species with approximately 90 in the United States and 160 in Mexico. The second greatest diversity of oaks is in China, which has about 100 species.
Logan writes, “it would be rash to suggest that oak trees were a condition for these civilizations, but it is interesting to think that from Kyoto to Beijing, from Kashmir to Jerusalem, from Istanbul to Moscow, from Gibraltar to Oslo, from New York to Chichen Itza, from Mexico City to Seattle, where there are or have been cities and cultures that shaped the modern world, there are or have been oaks.”
“No tree has been more useful to human beings than the oak. It was the oak that taught humans forestry. Its composition made it the easiest wood to split and shape. The drying log showed the internal network of circles and radii along which it could be split. One could make planks or beams of any width or thickness, limited by only the size of the tree. Oak alone could so flexibly and reliably be shaped with stone axes. Once bronze and then iron tools appeared, oak became a chief strategic material.”
Oaks are also critical habitat for many creatures. A new book “The Nature of Oaks,” By Douglas Tallamy investigates the role oaks play in our ecosystem. They are critical to the food web, and I’ve ordered my copy to learn more.
My first hands-on experience with white oak was when I worked at Old Sturbridge Village. One year the museum built a reproduction 17th century barn with beams constructed of hand-hewn white oak logs. I helped raise that frame, and believe me, it was heavy! The craftsmen who demonstrated making wooden barrels and buckets in the Cooper Shop used white oak for water-tight barrels. It was traditionally used for holding water, beer, cider or distilled liquor because the wood of white oak does not flavor the liquid.
Barrels made of red oak were preferred for dry goods such as grains, smoked meats and hardtack. Anyone who has split oak for firewood has smelled the pungent tannin of the freshly split red oak, but the white oak has a sweeter smell. Red oak bark was also used for tanning hides, as were other tree species that are high in tannin content.
Wooden barrels and crates comprised the primary shipping materials in the days before cardboard, and white oak barrels continue to be used for aging wine and distilling whiskey, bourbon and other spirits. Today in New England it is oaks that consistently have the highest dollar value per board foot, making them vitally important to our region’s wood products industry.
White oak is also the Connecticut State Tree, and its leaves and acorns adorn the Connecticut flag. During woods hikes I enjoy discovering a massive ancient white oak, hundreds of years old, still standing as a sentinel to our farming heritage. Where it once marked a boundary, or provided shade for pastured livestock, today it lives in abandoned farmland now returned to forest.
As spring advances, oaks will join maples and birches in their spring bloom, signaling another seasonal cycle of green hills and new life. Borland is right to describe white oak buds as a “mist of red that turns pink before the true green of the leaves.” Unfortunately, in some areas our spring and summer color will include pale gray from the lifeless oaks killed by the recent gypsy moth infestation. Many have already been cut down for safety reasons, as salvaged timber sales, or to be sold for firewood. In due time, the others will molder into the soil, and continue the cycle of life by nourishing the earthly home of acorns, saplings and trees such as the mighty white oak — forever rising into the forest canopy.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in and explored the region for over 40 years and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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