Northern Red Oak is Mighty and Reliable


Northern Red Oak is Mighty and Reliable

“The mightiest oak in the forest is just a little nut that held its ground.”
Anonymous – fortune cookie

There is a giant in our forests. Not only is it rooted deep here in The Last Green Valley and New England, but it can be found in much of the Eastern United States to Georgia and west to Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and west Texas.

This giant can obtain heights of 80 feet and occasionally more than 100 feet. It has a solid trunk of 2-4 feet in diameter. Importantly, this giant also has a monetary value above all its peers. Quercus rubra is the botanical name for this impressive deciduous tree. Northern red oak is the common name for this eminent tree of beauty, size, form and commercial value.

The foliage season is all but exhausted by late November. Only the leaves of our native oaks still cling to chilled branches. Back in October, the showy maples dazzled us with their multicolored coats of brilliant reds, orange and yellows. As we slide into late November it is the stately oaks taking the stage with their dignified, subdued hues.

The oak foliage season progresses from rich red burgundy shades, to deep mahogany and finally the muted dark brown of season’s end. The oaks are the last to give up their leaves. They take flight across yards on windy days, thwarting our rakes and hauling tarps, escaping across fields into quiet woods. Miraculously, some stalwarts can still be found clinging to branches throughout the winter — a quivering reminder of the warm green days of summer.

In spring, the red oak leaf buds are pink when first opened. When fully formed, they are big, 5 to 8 inches long and 4 to 5 inches across, with deep indentations and three to four jagged points on each side of the leaf.

The red oak bear large acorns of 1 to 1 1/2 inches long and attached to shallow caps. Red oak acorns take two years to ripen and are bitter to the taste due to the tannic acid found in the acorn, leaf, bark and wood. The tannic acid is why the leaves don’t decompose as quickly as other species of trees, and is also why the bark was used in tanning hides.

The red oak gets its name from the color of its wood — light brown or reddish brown. It is one of the most important timber trees because it is fast growing among other oak species and has a wide, spreading crown with few branches from base up to mid-height.

In forested locations it can grow tall and straight, reaching for the life-giving sun with 30 feet or more before any branching. Unlike other oak species, such as white and black oak, this tendency for a branch-free or “clean” stem gives red oaks an added value for flooring, furniture or millwork. The lack of branches means fewer knots and, therefore, fewer weak points in the final sawn lumber and finished board.

Oaks are shade tolerant and begin their early years sending the tap root downward into the forest soil. After a few years, the tap root becomes less dominant in growth and a lateral root network expands. Eventually, and when the forest canopy opens to more sunlight, the oak begins its upward climb. Spending much of its early years in shade, a small oak tree of only a few feet tall might be decades old, but once in full sun it will move to full height.

Northern red oak is the most valuable tree for timber production in our region. Quality red oak is of high value as veneer, flooring, interior trim and furniture. Lesser quality red oak is used for railroad ties and firewood.

The best resource for understanding the timber value of a tree species is called the Stumpage Price Survey. In Southern New England, this report is compiled by UMass Amherst and Mass Woods. A new report is provided online for each quarter of the year. A link to the Stumpage Price Survey from 1994 to present can be found at the following website:

The stumpage report compares the range (low to high), and the median prices paid per 1,000 board feet of lumber for many species of trees. The number of reports used in the survey are also indicated. A quick glance through several of these reports shows northern red oak consistently brings in significantly higher prices than any other species. The most recent report shows red oak at a median price of $300 per 1,000 board feet, twice the value of the next most valuable species, other oaks, at $150 per 1,000 board feet.

The report also shows volatility of the timber market. Despite the fluctuation in prices for timber products, northern red oak is a reliable forest product tree, regularly commanding the highest price.

The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor is still 77 percent undeveloped land with 10 percent in agriculture and 67 percent in forested land. Of this 67 percent, a full 50 percent is in deciduous forest and 12 percent coniferous forest. We live in a region dominated by oaks, hickory, beech and other deciduous trees, and of these many species, it is the mighty red oak that is the most prominent.

This is a wonderful time of year to get outdoors to experience the many forested lands available for our enjoyment in The Last Green Valley. Our many state forest lands, miles of forest trails and numerous parks provide the daily opportunity to explore. On your explorations you’ll encounter a preponderance of deciduous trees, and when you do, take a moment to look closely at our mighty oak trees, especially the beautiful and valuable red oak.

We live in a beautiful region. I hope you’ll join me and so many others as we work to care for, enjoy, and pass on this place we call The Last Green Valley.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in the region for more than 30 years and can be reached at


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