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Species Profile: White Oak

Upper branches of white oak tree

The mighty white oak tree, Quercus alba, has long been the subject of folklore and legend. Sometimes called the “King of Trees,” the oak is often associated with titans in the pagan pantheon, Zeus and Thor to name just two.

In Illinois, we recognize its importance and have named the white oak our state tree. We celebrate the month of October as Oak Awareness Month or Oaktober fest.

These trees, which can grow 50 to 80 feet tall with a width of up to 100 feet, were thought to have powers of healing, protection, and prosperity. This belief in the powers of the oak and why it was revered can be traced, in part, to its usefulness to humans.

Four main uses of oak

  1. As a timber tree, used for shipbuilding, barrels and furniture.
  2. The bark was and is used in tanning leather.
  3. As a food source. There is historical evidence that Native Americans boiled and ate them, but settlers also fed them to their pigs to fatten them up before slaughter.
  4. And last but not least, to heat their homes and to cook over.

So, shelter, clothing, food, and heat; everything one needed to survive all in one giant tree. Is it any wonder why the oak tree was and is so important?

What might be a surprise is the impact these trees have on today’s community.

As a keystone species, the glue that holds an ecosystem together, the white oak anchors a community of critters and humans alike. An estimated 500 to 2,300 species rely upon the oak tree, including birds, such as turkeys, woodpeckers and thrushes; mammals, such as black bear, white-tailed deer, rabbits, voles and mice; and hundreds of species of butterflies and moths.

Besides the benefits to humans, the oak also provides us with stress relief, clean air, and water and reduces ambient temperatures and energy needs in and around our homes. Let's not forget the sense of awe and wonder when you gaze up into its branches. So, it is reasonable to call the oak the “king of trees.”

White Oak Identification

White oak leaves are about 5 inches long and 3 inches wide. They have seven to nine round-edged lobes. The upper side of the leaf is a gorgeous blue-green with the underneath a whitish shade of green.

Its name comes from the color of the wood when it is first cut, light beige to white. The grayish bark has grooves and rectangular scales. Often, the older the tree, the deeper the grooves. It is sometimes confused with the white swamp oak, but white oaks have deeper cut lobes.

Fall is a great time to plant a tree. Don’t have a place to plant one? Host an oak workday or lead a walk through an oak woodland. Simply celebrate the mighty oak.