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Home » SCIENCE AND NATURE in NH » NEW HAMPSHIRE (all topics) » The Nature That Surrounds Us
A White Oak Tree in A Field
The Nature That Surrounds Us

The White Oak

By Mark B. Oliver | July 06, 2011

Previous Article in this Series

Imagine you are playing Family Feud and the host asks, “What do you most associate with New England?”

White Oak Barrels Sitting Beside Railway Tracks

There are endless choices, but chances are New England Clam Chowder will be on the scoreboard, and maybe Cape Cod.   But without a doubt, trees and their spectacular fall foliage will be in the top five answers.

New England is blessed with an abundance of trees and in our latest article in this series on the fauna and flora of the region, ONE looks at the exceptional White Oak.

Dan Shaw, a ninth generation New Hampshirite, and a State of Connecticut licensed arborist, explains why the White Oak has been a favored tree since the time of the first colonists.

“It is one of the hardwood species native to New England, and is the most durable as far as resistance to decay and the elements.” This discovery led to White Oak producing the wood of choice for oak barrels.

White Oak Quarter and Rift Sawn

“When the wood is quarter-sawed so that the rings are perpendicular to the surface of the board, it has a very distinctive pattern.   This patterning, together with the durability of the hardwood, makes White Oak a favorite of furniture makers to this day.”

The White Oak plays a subordinate role in New England forests, Shaw explains.

“It is not as common as Sugar Maples, White Pine or the Red Oak tree.   These species made inroads when the American Chestnut and the American Elm went into decline in the early twentieth century, but the White Oak persisted.”

This persistence is in part attributable to it not being under threat of any particular insect or disease, unlike the White Ash which is susceptible to the Emerald Ash Borer.

The trees themselves, when they have room to spread, are amongst the most beautiful of specimens.   The lower limbs can grow to be as long as the tree is tall, producing a beautiful round shape.   These lower limbs can become heavy and often need support to main their shape and integrity.

Tender Spring White Oak Leaves Are Pink

The White Oak flowers in the spring at about the same time leaves appear, with the exact timing depending upon the individual tree’s latitude. It is monoecious, meaning that flowers of both sexes are present on the same tree.

The yellowish staminate (male) flowers appear first in catkins that are two to three inches in length. The reddish pistillate (female) flowers appear five to ten days later, either singly or in pairs on short stalks.

Female flowers that are not fertilized are shed during the development period. Acorn crops are good in years when the weather is warm for ten days during flowering and then cool for thirteen to twenty days afterward.

Acorn maturity is reached approximately 120 days after pollination. The acorns drop around twenty-five days later - acorns are mature when they change color from green to light brown. Acorns germinate almost immediately after falling to the ground in September or October.

The White Oak can produce seeds prolifically, but good acorn crops are irregular and occur only every four to ten years. Sometimes several years may pass without a crop.   The trees normally bear seeds between the ages of fifty and 200 years, sometimes older; however, open grown trees may produce seeds as early as twenty years.

A White Oak in Winter

An average forest-grown White Oak probably produces no more than 10,000 acorns, which are disseminated by rodents (mainly squirrels and mice), gravity, and the wind.

Seedlings tend to be produced only in years when there is a heavy acorn crop, as in lighter years the entirety can fall foul of animals and insects.

Acorns are a valuable source of wildlife food. More than 180 different kinds of mammals and birds eat acorns, such as squirrels, blue jays, crows, red-headed woodpeckers, deer, turkey, quail, mice, chipmunks, ducks, and raccoons.

Also, White oak twigs and foliage are browsed by deer especially in clear-cut trees less than six years old.

The White Oak is also Connecticut’s state tree, but that is a story for another time.

It is no wonder that it’s majestic shape and the usefulness of its wood has made the White Oak a favorite for generations and long may it continue.

In our next article in this series, we put the Red Cardinal under the microscope.

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