Of the more than 90 species of Oak trees that inhabit North America, the great White Oak Tree (Quercus alba) is just about the most majestic. I don’t know who originally coined the phrase ‘the mighty oak’, but they must have been referring to White Oak as almost no other Oak species looks as grand. Also, if you’re looking to make a positive impact on the ecosystem, there is no other native plant that does more for nature than a White Oak tree.
Not only cutting a stately shape with it’s immense trunk and sprawling branches, but this single tree species feeds more wildlife in North America than just about any other species. This fact alone would be an argument for it being nearly the single most important tree species on the continent. But when we factor in the value of the lumber and firewood, it is almost assured that this is the single most important species in North America.
In this article:
- What is White Oak
- What are the benefits of White Oak
- Landscaping with White Oak trees
- How to grow and care for White Oak (growing conditions)
- Identification / Characteristics
- What Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases effect White Oak
- Where to buy White Oak
- Uses of White Oak
What is White Oak
The White Oak Tree is a deciduous hardwood tree native to Eastern North America. Scientifically known as Quercus alba, it will grow 60-100′ in full sun with well draining, medium-moist soil. White Oaks host over 200 insects, which in-turn feed birds, making this one of the most ecologically important tree species in North America.    
Although not commonly used in residential landscaping, White Oak Trees will grow medium pace, adding roughly 1-2′ per year in height & 1-3 inches of d.b.h. per year. Although they can provide some of the most stunning shapely specimens of a tree, they need to reach an age of approximately 100 years to accomplish this form. None the less they can provide lots of shade while still benefiting local wildlife with proper pruning.
Lumber from White Oak has good rot resistance , is hard, and is a desirable wood for cabinet and furniture making. Quartersawn white oak will also produce beautiful artistic flecks providing it with a one-of-a-kind appearance.
Native Range of White Oak
The native range of White Oak is roughly the Eastern half of North America. Running from Central Minnesota, South to Texas and Louisiana, then East to the panhandle of Florida, North to Maine following the coast.
The wide native range of White Oak make it a common tree in deciduous hardwood forests throughout the Eastern United States. They can grow in a wide variety of conditions and are frequently encountered state forests and nature preserves.
|Scientific Name||Quercus alba|
|Common Name(s)||White Oak, Stave Oak,|
|Native Range, USDA Zone||3b-9|
|Bloom Duration, Color||Yellow/green flower in Spring|
|Growth Rate||12-24″ per year (30-60 cm)|
|Height||60-100′, but even taller in the wild|
|Circumference||120-220″ (3-5 m)|
|Spacing / Spread||Will grow 60-100′ wide in the open.|
|Light Requirements||Full Sun. In wooded area, it needs overhead sun.|
|Soil Types||Sandy loam, loam, clay loam. pH Range 5-8|
|Moisture||Moist to medium, but must be well draining|
|Fauna Associations / Larval Hosts||To numerous to list. 200+ insect species. Mammals and birds.|
What are the Benefits of White Oak
White Oaks grown in the open have some of the most amazing shapes with their extraordinary thick trunks and wide spreading branches, while those that matured under a partial forest canopy can have tall, straight, and stately looking trunks/shapes.
Without insects, it is likely that life on earth would collapse in short order. This is because the insects are the crucial link in the overall food chain for all life.  As a keystone plant, White Oak Trees host over 200 species of insect , which make it one of the single most valuable food sources for birds who consume the caterpillars throughout the year   .
Here is the thing, most people associate insect damage as a negative thing. AKA, if something is eating my plant, it is harming my plant. And although there are over 200 species of insect that will eat White Oak, the fact is it isn’t that damaging to the tree and stimulates new growth.  So, by Oaks feeding the insects, that feed the birds, that feed….many other birds and mammals, the overall ecosystem is better balanced and healthy.
Food for mammals & birds
Deer prefer white oak acorns over red oak, as is commonly known amongst deer hunters. But it doesn’t stop there – chipmunks, mice, raccoons, squirrels as well as many bird species will consume the acorns too. Some of the birds who benefit from Oak acorn crop (mast) include Blue Jays, Crows, Red-Headed Woodpeckers as well as larger game birds such as turkey and quail.   These benefits of growing White Oak over non-native species has been well documented. 
White Oak lumber is commonly used in furniture and cabinet making. It’s workability and nice complexion make it very desirable. Additionally, White Oak has been used in barrel making for centuries, which also gave it a another common name, Stave Oak. 
White Oak helps to fight invasive species
There are not too many Native Plants that can directly help fight invasive species. Oak leaves break down more slowly than other tree species. And this helps keep Japanese Stilt Grass from germinating until later in the season, which in-turn helps other native species compete. There is also anecdotal evidence that Asian Jumping worms don’t like Oak leaves.
Landscaping with White Oak
Under the proper growing conditions, and given enough time White Oak can grow to become amazing landscaping trees. White Oak trees, when grown in the open will grow as wide as they are tall, and the mature height of a White Oak tree can reach 80-100′ tall. Over many decades this could result in a tree that has a 100′ diameter and height. So, it is not a tree for a small lot! It needs space to grow and thrive. 
The trunk of a fully mature White Oak can reach 6′ diameter (1.8 m). So, do not plant White Oaks close to sidewalks, as the trunk/roots can flare out and raise the sidewalk, street, or parking lot. These trees need their space! Of course, if you did plant it too close, it probably won’t raise the street in your lifetime!
If growing in a more shaded location, White Oaks can be still be added for landscaping. They must have overhead sunlight, and will grow upwards towards the light. So, if surrounded by other trees to shade it from the sides, a White Oak can grow with a much smaller diameter canopy. Please note though that if it receives light from the sides….it will grow wide. So, unless you have a wooded lot, you should plan on it growing with a very wide shape.
Regarding wooded lots
One of the more common uses of White Oaks in new construction is to not cut them down! For instance in Pennsylvania where I live, you often will see people build new houses on wooded lots. And the White Oak being a common tree, it is often present. Well, many homes opt to not cut down a mature White Oak as it will not only provide shade and interest, but provide beauty to the new home. There are numerous examples of this in my own neighborhood, where it is clear that the owner left a 80′ White Oak with a narrow canopy.
So, if you are in this situation of building on a wooded lot, carefully examine/identify the current trees and determine if there are any slow growing hardwoods that you should try to preserve, while still building your dream home.
Grow and Care for White Oak (Growing Conditions)
In general, White Oak trees will grow best in full sun. In the wild, in forested conditions White Oaks can grow in shade, but eventually they will need to have at least over-head sun to survive.
As a White Oak grows and matures, it will become less tolerant of shade. So, it is important to maintain some overhead sunlight in order to allow the tree to grow and thrive. 
White Oak is highly adaptable, and can grow in almost any soil from sandy-loam to clay-loam, and even rocky or gravely soil. The one thing to note is that very compacted soil will prevent acorns that germinate from establishing themselves, as compacted soil will inhibit taproot formation.
For moisture, White Oak prefers moist to medium-moist soil. It can grow in somewhat dry soils, but overall isn’t drought tolerant. Again, the key thing to note about moisture is drainage. White Oak can be susceptible to root rot, and it that is why it is important to make sure your soil drains well.
Pruning White Oaks
White Oak Trees can be pruned safely when young by anyone. The proper time to prune Oak Trees is when the tree is dormant, but after the coldest part of Winter is past. This will minimize any quick freeze damage to open wounds, but allow the open wounds time to heal before insects are active. This is especially important for Oak species, as it is insects acting on open wounds that can transmit Oak Wilt disease.
Dead branches on White Oak trees should be removed when identified. Damaged or diseased limbs can, and should be removed at anytime. If pruning damaged or diseased limbs results in live wood exposure during the growing season, non-phytotoxic wound dressings should be applied! This is because insects are the primary vectors of many damaging fungi and bacterial infections to Oak Trees.
How to prune White Oaks
There are some general guidelines for pruning White Oaks that should be followed to help ensure a structurally sound, healthy tree. It is better to actively prune any problematic limbs when the tree is young, as this will reduce the amount of wounds that the tree needs to close. Pruning should be treated as an important and necessary chore for any young tree that should not be ‘put off until next season’. Waiting an extra year to prune a tree can lead to introduction of disease, or damage from having to prune heavier limbs.
- Always sterilize your tools with 50% rubbing alcohol/water solution
- Never remove more than 25%-33% of live buds of a White Oak tree during a pruning. Aka, don’t remove more than 1/3 of the limbs or mass at any one time!
- As a general rule, don’t remove half the limb. Remove the entire limb just beyond the branch collar.
- Regular pruning of a White Oak tree should occur when the tree is dormant, but after the coldest parts of Winter
- Use the 3-cut method to avoid bark tear-out/peeling on long limbs.
- Cut just beyond the branch collar, perpendicular to the limb axis. The branch collar is the bulging ring of the main trunk, that transitions to the limb. Cutting just beyond the branch collar will minimize the time for the tree to form wound-wood, and allow the branch collar to grow over the wound over many years. Cutting flush with the trunk will leave the wound exposed longer, resulting in greater chance of disease.
- As a general rule, you want to maintain a single dominant vertical limb. So remove any lesser competing limbs (co-dominant leader) that are vertical in nature.
- Remove limbs that form a ‘V’ or small angle relative to vertical. These are structurally weak, and will break off in the future, likely resulting in a significant wound. A larger angle, one that approaches 90 degrees or forms an ‘L’ will be much stronger, and can stay.
- Remove any branches that cross over other branches, ie they don’t grow ‘away’ from the trunk, but grow over other branches. These limbs may eventually start rubbing on other limbs, resulting in wounds that may occur during the active growing season.
- If one wants to raise the crown, you should not remove all limbs around the trunk at the same height in one year. Only remove every 3rd limb to avoid over stress or epicormic sprout formation.
Avoid Root Damage / Compaction
Established White Oak trees do not tolerate damage to their root systems. Any significant disturbance/damage can stress or harm the tree, making it more susceptible to disease. Construction/excavation near the canopy of any White Oak tree should especially be avoided.
Compaction of soil around Oak roots must be avoided as well. So, do not drive under or near Oaks to avoid compacting the soil.
White Oak Acorns / How to Grow White Oak from Seed
White Oak acorns are relatively straightforward to germinate and grow from seed. In fact, there is an excellent method for doing so that I will share with you. I will cover the following;
- How to gather acorns
- Testing acorn viability
- ‘Pre-germination’ of White Acorns
- Planting of White Acorns / over-wintering
- Tending to young seedlings
How to collect/harvest White Oak acorns
White Oak Acorns begin to mature in late Summer or early Fall. So, you need to be able to locate a White Oak tree and monitor the acorns, knowing that the size of the acorn crop (mast) will vary year to year. But monitor the acorn, and when they begin to turn brown and fall, you should make frequent visits to the tree. This is because squirrels and deer love to eat White Oak acorns, and you will be competing with them for the crop!
Also, acorns must not be allowed to dry out. They are living things, and if their moisture content falls below 30-50%, the acorn will not germinate.
*Note – sometimes acorns can be blown from a tree during strong storms while they are still immature. So, make sure the acorns are brown, and from this year. Green acorns are not fully formed/mature and will not germinate.
Once the acorns are brown and begin to fall naturally from the tree, you should begin harvesting them. You should assume that only 1/3 of the acorns you collect will result in a possible germination, as many acorns will be infested with weevils that eat the center, and others may have not fully developed and won’t germinate.
Testing acorn viability
There are two simple tests to determine if an acorn is viable:
- Twist off the acorn cap and inspect the top for any holes. If a hole is found, discard the acorn as it has been infested by a weevil and is no longer viable
- Dump all remaining acorns into a bucket of water and let them soak for 24 hours. Discard any acorn that floats after 24 hours.
All acorns that have no hole in the crown, and sink in water should be considered viable. For more background and info on the float test, as well as some summarized scientific studies, see our write up here.
Pre-germination of White Oak acorns (optional)
An optional step that can work for a final viability test of the acorns of the White Oak family is to germinate them in a moist sand/sphagnum peat moss mixture in the refrigerator. You see, White Oak acorns will germinate a small root in cold, moist conditions. In nature White Oak acorns will begin to germinate upon making contact with cool, moist soil.
To pre-germinate acorns, simply fill a shallow, wide Tupperware container with moist sand/sphagnum peat moss mixture. It should be moist enough that when you squeeze a handful, only a few drops of water come out.
Place acorns on their side in this mixture. Then place the tray in the refrigerator. Check it daily for acorns that germinate a small root/radical.
Planting White Acorns / Over-wintering
Now that we have viable young acorns, we can plant the seeds. Acorns should be planted 1-2″ deep, in-ground or in tall pots (8-14″ deep) filled with moist potting soil. The acorns will continue to grow for a period before temperatures get really cold. But, if in pots it can be risky to just set them outside.
White Oak acorns are alive, and even generate their own heat to maintain themselves. But – if the acorn is allowed to freeze solid in harsh Winter conditions, it will die. To avoid this you have three options.
- Plant the acorn in the ground, directly where we want the tree. And place a screen over-top to dissuade squirrels from digging it up.
- Plant the acorn in a pot, and bury the pot in the ground while insulating the top with some autumn leaves
- Plant the acorn in a pot, but over-winter it in an unheated garage or shed
- Leave the acorn in a moist sand/sphagnum peat moss mixture in the fridge for several months until Spring approaches, then plant in pots and place outside. Just be careful to not damage any root/radicals when removing from the sand.
I’m giving you this advice and instruction based on my own personal experience. I’ve winter-sowed thousands of seeds over the years, and while some tree seeds can freeze solid without issue, I’ve found that White Oak acorns will die if the pots they are in freeze solid in the dead of Winter (I’m in zone 6, for reference).
Some Oak species seem to be better at surviving total freezing temperatures, such as Pin Oak. But in years where I attempted to grow White Oak, Red Oak, Pin Oak, and some other Oak species….only the Pin Oaks had good germination. So, do yourself a favor, and overwinter those pots in an unheated garage or shed!
Tending to young seedlings
White Oaks upon germination will begin to form a taproot. It is therefore beneficial to plant in it’s final location relatively quickly in Spring. If you used a small, shallow pot, the tap-root may not form as well if planted in Autumn.
I like to plant my saplings before the onset of Summer, and have them protected with a tree-shelter. A white plastic tree shelter will protect the sapling from being eaten by deer and rabbits when it is very young, and encourage vertical growth. It also will let the tree grow faster, as the shelter acts as greenhouse.
As the tree ages, the shelter can be left on the tree trunk. This will help protect the trunk from buck rubbings, as well as subsequent browsing attempts.
White Oak Growth Rate / Establishment
The White Oak tree has a slow to medium growth rate, typically adding between 1-2′ of height per year (30-60 cm). You may have heard a saying about how you really plant trees for the next generation to enjoy. Well, that is quite true with White Oak.
Video Guide for the White Oak Tree / germinating acorns
Identification and Characteristics of White Oak
White Oak Trees can attain different shapes based on what environment they grow. When grown out in the open, exposed from all sides, a White Oak will have a short and thick main trunk and a globe-shaped crown with wide-spreading branches. When grown in a forest with primarily overhead light, it will grow vertical with an ovoid crown.
White Oak Bark
The bark of the White Oak tree consists of shallow-furrowed blocks that have a very light-gray color. I often think of mature White Oak bark as resembling a puzzle, or tilework.
Immature bark on the branches is more smooth, but still light gray in color.
Leaves of White Oak trees are 4-7″ long by 2-4″ wide and obovate or elliptic in shape with 3-5 pairs of pinnately divided lobes. The lobes are medium to deep with rounded tips.
The upper surface of the leaf is medium green and smooth, while the lower service is a lighter green. Leaf stems are short, being 1/4-3/4″ long.
Fall colors of White Oak
Leaves will turn a reddish brown or purple color in Autumn. Dead leaves tend to stay on the tree until strong Winter winds dislodge them.
Male and Female flowers will occur separately on White Oaks in the form of yellow-green catkins 2-3″ long. Flowers occur in mid-Spring for about 2 weeks, and grow near the end of previous years branch growth.
Acorns will form over the subsequent four months, maturing to roughly 1/2″-1″ long by 3/8″-1/2″ wide. Research has found that only about 12% of flowers will result in mature acorns, and that more rain during flowering times will result in more acorns. 
White Oak acorn crops vary year to year. Roughly every 3rd to seventh year will produce a bumper crops. While some years, little to no acorns will be produced on a White Oak tree.
The root system of White Oak begins with a tap-root upon nut germination that eventually transitions to wide, lateral roots. The tap-root eventually disappears as the tree matures. So, young White Oak Trees have a deep tap-root. Mature White Oak trees have a wide spreading lateral root system. The vast majority of the root mass of a mature White Oak tree will be within the top 1-2′ of soil. 
Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases associated with White Oak
Pollinators & beneficial insects
The White Oak is host to nearly 100 species of moth, as well as another 140 species of leaf hopper, tree hopper, and beetles. Research has repeatedly shown that birds will forage more often and for longer in Oak trees than any other species, and that Oaks have more insect interactions than any other North American Native tree.  
There are numerous insects that will feed on White Oak leaves. Although this may seem like ‘pesty’ behavior, it is natural and necessary for the insects and the birds that eat them. However, there are some invasive species that and other common unsightly pests that I will describe below, that you should consider taking action to eliminate.
An invasive moth commonly known as the Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar) can defoliate Oak trees. Single season-infestations are often not fatal to the tree. However repeated infestations can kill it. If you notice gypsy moths or their caterpillars, treatment may be necessary by a professional.  
Another pest that can effect Oak Trees is known as Scale. These insects suck sap from the limbs, robbing them of nutrients. The primary symptom you will see initially is dieback at the end of the limbs. Further symptoms can be yellowing or wilting leaves. As the Scale progresses, you will see that a sap or honeydew that is secreted from the insects. Trees can be sprayed with insecticide when the Scale insects are active.  
There are hundreds of species of mites and insects that will lay eggs on an Oak Tree, and many of these result in large round growths known as ‘galls’. Oak galls are not dangerous to the tree and don’t require any treatment. But, they are not nice to look at. Thankfully their effect is only cosmetic. 
Deer and Rabbits
Deer and rabbits will feed on young saplings. Deer eating the new growth or whole sapling completely (sometimes), and rabbits eating young bark during large snowpack. 
I strongly recommend that you protect young White Oak trees with tree-shelters or cages. Liquid fence can help during the growing season, but twigs that protrude out of a shelter or cage should have deer fencing draped over them during the Winter.
Diseases that can effect White Oak
Like many trees, White Oak are susceptible to diseases. The best way to avoid infection is to keep your trees healthy! Trees that experience too much water or drought, or damage will be weakened and more likely to be infected.
Symptoms of Anthracnose are small brown bumps/lesions on the underside of the leaves. You may also notice dieback of twigs in Winter. This will occur in sections on the tree. To treat it, prune and remove effected areas during dormancy. Then in Spring, spray a fungicide on new leaves in the same area as prevention.
Armillaria Rot Rot
The symptoms of Root Rot on White Oaks will be whole limb die-back and clusters of 1-6″ diameter mushrooms at the base. Under the bark you may notice spalting (black lines). This will occur in poorly draining soils and wet areas. Thus, it truly is important to assess your soil’s drainage before planting!
Trees infected with root rot generally cannot be saved. You should however contact an arborist to inspect the tree for safety, as you wouldn’t want it to fall over.
Bacterial Wet Wood
The symptoms of Bacterial Wet Wood is dark sap emanating from cracks within the bark. The hearwood of the tree will be discolored. This disease is caused by various bacteria that usually gain entry to the tree via open wounds or pruning during the active growing season, which allows insects to transmit the bacteria via their feet. If the tree is in healthy conditions, it should recover with normal care.
Ganoderma Root Rot or Inonotus Root Rot
Symptoms of root root are shelf-like mushrooms or fungi at the base of the tree. There are multiple fungi that cause root rot. You may also notice branch die back with smaller leaves that are yellow in color. Trees with this fungus cannot be saved, but should be professionally removed as they pose a hazard and may tip-over in high winds.
Symptoms of Oak Leaf Spot generally begin in mid to late Summer, starting as small brown spots occurring between veins. As the season progresses, the spots will grow to 3/8″ diameter and have a small yellow ring form around the outside.
Leaf Spot only has cosmetic effects on White Oak trees and does not require treatment. Trees that are stressed will have more noticeable effects. So, make sure your tree is in the proper growing conditions and has any necessary nutrients.
Oak Leaf Blister
Symptoms of Oak Leaf Blister begin as small spots 1/4″ to 1/2″ diameter (6-12 mm) on young leaves in late Spring. As the leaves grow, the spots turn into raised blisters.
Oak Leaf Blister is cosmetic in nature and doesn’t hurt the tree. No treatment is necessary.
Like many flowers, Powdery Mildew can also effect White Oak trees. The disease will manifest itself as a white powdery like substance on the leaves. The effects of this disease are only cosmetic. It will not harm the tree. No treatment is necessary.
Although Oak Wilt primarily effects members of the Red Oak family, one should still be on the look out for symptoms in regards to White Oak. Leaf margins will begin to turn brown, primarily starting at the top of the tree. Leaves will then fall off while still green and be wilted. The disease will progress from the top to the bottom of the tree.
The disease will typically prove fatal within one year. Once a single tree is infected, it can spread between roots to other Oak Trees. Once positively diagnosed, effected material should be immediately removed, and an arborist consulted to treat any surrounding trees.
Oak Wilt is spread via insect, so once again I must repeat – only prune trees when dormant! That is the best prevention of Oak Wilt.
Where you can buy White Oak
Straight species White Oak trees aren’t typically sold in big-box garden centers. You can find bare root trees sometimes, as well as specialty tree nurseries. I recommend coldstreamfarm.net, as I’ve purchased several bare root trees and shrubs from them in the past, and have always been pleased with the quality of their plants. I have no affiliation with them – I’m just telling you my direct experience.
Uses of White Oak Tree
White Oak can make for one of the most impressive displays of a tree. In the open they will grow as wide as they are tall, which in most cases will be 100′. So, if one has patience, or doesn’t mind planting trees for the next generation, White Oak can be an excellent landscaping choice for the future.
In addition to specimen trees, White Oaks have historically been used to line streets to make for gorgeous boulevard displays.
White Oak Lumber is widely used in furniture making, flooring, doors and trim. White Oak has a Janka hardness of approximately 1350 lbf. As the grain does a good job of preventing water ingress, White Oak is also used for making barrel staves (yes, the kind used in aging whiskey/bourbon) and shipbuilding.  
Over 60 uses of White Oak by Native Americans have been documented by 10 different tribes. Primarily, White Oak Bark is what held the medicinal benefits for Native Americans. The bark was used for a variety of ailments, from a disinfectant to dermatological aid, or an infusion used to treat pain. Lumber was also used to make various tools to aid with food preparation and other items. 
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 – Oak, White. “Quercus alba.” Quercus 12 (1994): 181-210.
 – Quercus Alba, USDA. Accessed 12JUN2022. https://plants.usda.gov/home/plantProfile?symbol=qual
 – Roach, Margaret. “Why You Should Plant Oaks” New York Times, 31MAR2021. Accessed 24JUN2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/31/realestate/oak-trees-why-you-should-plant.html
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 – Narango, D.L., Tallamy, D.W. & Shropshire, K.J. Few keystone plant genera support the majority of Lepidoptera species. Nat Commun 11, 5751 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19565-4
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 – Narango, Desirée L., Douglas W. Tallamy, and Peter P. Marra. “Nonnative plants reduce population growth of an insectivorous bird.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115.45 (2018): 11549-11554.
 – Cecich, Robert A., and Neal H. Sullivan. “Influence of weather at time of pollination on acorn production of Quercus alba and Quercus velutina.” Canadian Journal of Forest Research 29.12 (1999): 1817-1823.
 – Hart, John H., and W. E. Hillis. “Inhibition of wood-rotting fungi by ellagitannins in the heartwood of Quercus alba.” Phytopathology 62.6 (1972): 620-626.
 – Hayden, W. John. “Oak Galls: A Strange Biology Indeed!.” Bulletin of the Virginia Native Plant Society 30.3 (2011): 4.
 – Eric Meier, “Wood! IDENTIFYING AND USING HUNDREDS OF WOODS WORLDWIDE.” p. 209-210. 2015
 – Quercus Alba, North American Ethnobotany Database. Accessed 24JUN2022.
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