Eastern Oak Tree Identification
This page covers the majority of the common oak species in the eastern United States and Canada, how they relate to deer hunting, and where they typically can be found. Oaks are called "mast trees" because they produce acorns (hard mast) which is a very important source of food for wildlife.
More species will be added to the list in the future, as well as occasional updates to existing data.
Last updated 02-03-2021
[photos added for cherrybark, northern red, nuttall, overcup, pin, scarlet, Shumard, and swamp chestnut oak.]
Things To Know...
Red Oaks vs. White Oaks
Most North American oaks are divided into two groups, red and white. All species belong to the genus Quercus, which is in the beech family (Fagaceae).
Leaf shape is probably the easiest way to tell a red oak from a white oak. Leaves of red oaks have very small bristles at the tip of each lobe, or at the tip of the leaf if there are no lobes. White oaks do not have bristles on the leaves; they usually have rounded lobes, or a sawtooth margin.
Oak trees bloom in the spring, pollinating by wind through male and female flowers (catkins).
White oaks produce acorns within one growing season - acorns ripen the same year they were pollinated.
Red oak acorns take two, occasionally three years to reach maturity. You may find both mature and immature acorns on the same tree.
Most acorns contain tannic acid (tannin), a very bitter substance used in tanning leather. Deer generally prefer acorns with less tannin. However, preference may vary from one tree to the next, and often depends on what kind of acorns are available in your area.
Red oaks produce acorns with higher tannin levels. The tannin preserves the acorn over the winter so it can germinate and sprout in the spring.
White oak acorns sprout shortly after they fall, so they do not require the high tannin levels to resist rotting. Because of this, white oak acorns are less bitter, sometimes even sweet, and are usually the preferred acorn for deer and other wild game. Some species of white oak produce acorns that are mild enough for humans to eat raw.
White oaks either sprout or are eaten quickly by wildlife, so they are often a short-lived food source that should be capitalized on quickly during deer season.
Red oaks may start dropping acorns before white oaks, and may continue to drop after white oaks are gone (this depends on species and individual trees). Because they don't sprout till the following spring, red oak acorns are an important fall and winter food source that will carry deer, turkey, ducks, squirrels, and songbirds through the entire season on years with a good mast crop.
Here are a few words to be familiar with when reading the identification guide below.
Margin - the outer edge of the leaf
Petiole - the "stem" at the base of the leaf
Apex - the tip of the leaf
Lobe - the rounded or pointed sections around the leaf margin
Sinus - the indention between lobes
Midvein - the vein that runs up the center of the leaf from the petiole to the apex
Side Vein - the largest veins branching off either side of the midvein
Sun Leaf - leaves that grow in full sun, often with narrower lobes and deeper sinuses
Shade Leaf - leaves that grow in the understory, often with shallow sinuses
Leaf shape may vary quite a bit on the same tree. Sun leaves are typically narrower, with deeper sinuses and a more shiny surface. Shade leaves grow lower on the tree under the sun leaves, and are often wider, duller green, with shallow lobes. This is important to note when using leaf shape to identify a tree.
The sawtooth oak is native to Asia, but was introduced to North America in the 1920s. It has been used widely in landscaping and as a food source for wildlife. It is neither a red nor a white oak - it belongs to the Cerris group, and shares some traits with red oaks.
A very fast-growing tree, it may bear acorns at less than 10 years of age. Acorn crops are heavy and drop early in the season, before most other oaks. Because of the consistent heavy acorn drop, sawtooth oaks have been a staple in wildlife management for years.
In some areas, the sawtooth oak has become invasive. Because of this, it is not recommended as highly as it once was. However, in many places it still produces great early season food for deer, turkey, and other wildlife without encroaching on native trees.