The Red Oak Tree is a deciduous hardwood tree native to Eastern North America. Scientifically known as Quercus Rubra, a growth rate of 1-2’ per year, it can reach heights of 100’ in full sun and well-draining soil. A long lived tree, Red Oaks can live up to 500 years old. An incredibly important tree for wildlife, Red Oaks host numerous species of insects that in-turn feed many birds.
Red Oaks make an excellent shade tree due to their fast growth rate and wide variety of soils they can grow in. One is just as likely to encounter a Northern Red Oak in a dense hardwood forest as a municipal park or suburban front yard.
In this article:
- Red Oak Facts / Quick Reference
- What are the pros and cons of Red Oak trees
- How to grow and care for Red Oak (growing conditions)
- Identification / characteristics of Red Oak
- What wildlife, pests, and diseases effect Red Oak
- Where to buy Red Oak trees
- Uses of Red Oak
- Companion trees/plants
- Final thoughts
Red Oak Facts / Quick Reference
- Red Oak Trees are one of the fastest growing Oaks, growing up to 24″ per year for the first 10 years of it’s life
- In optimum growing conditions, Red Oak trees can reach over 100′ tall. If grown in the open, they can have a wide canopy of 40-60′ making a grand presence.
- One of the most important trees for wildlife, a Red Oak hosts more than 150 species of insect. These insects feed birds year round. And the acorns are prized by squirrels, chipmunks, deer, turkey, and other mammals/large birds.
- The Latin or Botanical Name of Red Oak is Quercus rubra.
- Prized for it’s beauty, hardness and strength, Red Oak lumber is often used in furniture, cabinets, and flooring.
- Although native to Eastern North America, Red Oak has become invasive in other parts of the world.
Red Oak Tree Reference Table
|Scientific Name||Quercus rubra|
|Common Name(s)||Red Oak, Red Oak Tree|
|Native Range, USDA Zone||Eastern North America, USDA Hardiness Zone 3-8|
|Bloom Duration, Color||Yellow/green flowers in Spring|
|Height||60-100′ (18-30 m)|
|Spacing / Spread||40-50′ (12-15 m)|
|Light Requirements||Full sun to partial shade|
|Soil Types||Sandy loam, loam, clay loam. Well-drained.|
|Moisture||Moist to medium moisture|
|Fauna Associations / Larval Hosts||Birds/mammals & 180+ insects are hosted|
The native range of the Red Oak tree covers the eastern half of North America. Running from the Eastern Texas and Oklahoma North to Minnesota, and then East through Canada to Maine. And finally South through South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
Red Oak is also the only Native Oak that naturally grows in Nova Scotia with populations of Red Oak being found on Prince Edward and Cape Breton Islands.
Although native to North America, Red Oak has become invasive in other parts of the world, negatively impacting the local flora.
Pros and Cons of Red Oak Tree
Typically reaching heights of 65-100’ tall with beautiful round crowns, Red Oak trees make for a stunning display as a single specimen, alee tree, or dense stand. If grown in the open, a Red Oak will develop a wide crown while in dense stands it will have a narrow, more compact crown only growing towards sunlight.
Height / Shade Tree
With mature Red Oak Trees reaching 65-100’ tall in preferred growing conditions, Red Oaks make a great shade tree. The large height means they can make for an impressive display and provide lots of shade.
While many people think of Oak Trees as ‘slow growing’, this is not the case for Red Oaks! Red Oak Trees have a high growth rate, growing up to two feet per year (60 cm/yr) in full sun and well draining soil.
The Red Oak tree hosts more than 150 species of insects such as moths, tree hoppers, and various wood borers. These insects then support the local food web by feeding birds and other animals. The acorns are an important food source for deer, squirrels, turkey, mice, and other animals. 
Although Oak trees have a reputation as slow growers, the Red Oak is a fast growing Oak in that it can grow up to 24” per year during the first 5-10 years of it’s life when grown in full sun and well draining soil.
Red Oak trees can grow in a wide range of conditions making them a good choice for any location where it can reach it’s full height of 60-100’. In fact the only two soil characteristics that will harm or prevent Red Oaks from growing is high pH alkaline soil or soil that doesn’t drain well.
Red Oak trees make excellent lumber that is hard, strong, and dense. The clear grain is often used in furniture, frames, cabinets, and flooring.
Although wildlife is one of the reasons to plant a Red Oak, one thing we must contend with is acorns on our lawn. And Red Oak Acorns are large enough to where they can become a trip hazard if stepped on.
Even though we admire the beautiful foliage most of the year, at some point those leaves will come down. And, some people don’t like having to rake the leaves. If you are just trying to add some shade to your house and still want a lawn, then you will have to move those Red Oak leaves somewhere else, as they will eventually smother the grass.
A couple suggestions would be to use the Red Oak leaves as a brown material in compost, or (what I do) use the leaves to make an outstanding leaf mulch. I’ve documented the transformation of my soil over the years due to leaf mulch, and it is nothing short of outstanding. Oak leaves are packed with nutrients and can make a great soil amendment.
*Also – plenty of research has been done on whether Oak leaves will change the pH of compost/soil. Michigan State University has thoroughly documented that Oak leaves will not change the pH of the soil. 
Growing Conditions for Red Oak Trees
Red Oak Trees are highly adaptable trees that can grow nearly anywhere that sunlight is available.
Red Oak Sunlight Requirements
Red Oak Trees will grow best in full sun, which is six hours or more direct sunlight. It can grow in partial sun, which is 4-6 hours of direct sunlight.
Soil requirements of Red Oak trees
Red Oak trees are highly adaptable when it comes to soil conditions. In fact it is easier to describe what they don’t like rather than soil types that they grow well in! The key soil characteristics to avoid is high-pH alkaline soils and poorly draining soils. But they can survive in just about any other condition.
For soil texture, Red Oak can grow in anything sandy soil to clay-loam, as long as it drains well. In fact, well-draining soil is a key requirement, as if the roots are submerged in constant water the tree will likely die from root rot. 
Soil pH for Red Oak
Red Oak will grow best in acidic to neutral pH levels of 6.0-7.2. If your pH of your soil is 7.5 or higher, consider a different tree as it is difficult to change the pH of soil and it generally requires yearly or every 2nd year treatments.
For moisture, Red Oaks prefer moist to medium-moist soils that drain well. It can tolerate droughts once established. But in nature you often find Red Oaks naturally growing on North or Easterly slopes, which are more likely to have moist soils being blocked from hot afternoon sunlight.
Caring for Red Oak Trees
Establishing newly transplanted Red Oak trees is fairly simple. The key factor should be water it with 5 gallons of water every week per inch of trunk diameter. If deer and rabbits are in your area, you should consider caging the tree in chicken wire (48” tall) or using a tree shelter. After 1-2 years, the root system should be established enough where you do not need to provide supplemental water except in times of drought.
Pruning Red Oak Trees
Young Red Oak Trees should not be pruned heavily. But, if you wish to shape your tree you should prune only in late Winter, after the coldest times have passed. This is important as Oak trees are susceptible to Oak Wilt disease that is transferred by insects getting into open wounds of a tree. Thus if you prune in late Winter when insects are not active, you will minimize this risk as the tree will form a scab naturally by Spring. 
Should you notice dead/dying branches on your Oak Tree, you may remove those immediately. Follow general pruning guidelines and make sure you protect the open wound with breathable material such as row crop cloth, allowing a tree wound to breathe but preventing access by insects to the fresh wound.
Catch diseases early
The best treatment of disease is to have a healthy tree free of wounds. However, you should pay attention to your trees and periodically inspect them for any sign of disease such as scale and Oak Wilt. If you suspect infestation, the best course of action is to contact an arborist. Treatment of certain diseases requires licensing for the pesticides used, but these are likely necessary to save the tree.
Identification of Red Oak trees
Shape / Crown
Red Oak trees grown in the open will form a large round crown that spreads widely (similar to White Oak). If the Oak Tree is grown in partial shade, it will grow tall and straight with a smaller, but still rounded crown
Red Oak bark identification
The bark of Red Oak Trees is quite identifiable. It is light to dark gray in color and has flat vertical ridges separated by deep furrows. The flat ridges almost resemble racetracks or roadways. And because of these flat ridges, one is generally able to readily identify this tree in all seasons from a distance. In fact I would say the bark is the most single identifiable characteristic of this tree.
Take a good look at the vertical ridges/lines on the image above. This is one of the clearest identifiers of Red Oak bark. I like to think of it as highways running vertically up the bark.
Red Oak leaves grow in an alternate arrangement and are generally 3-6” (7.5-15 cm) wide by 5-10” (12-25 cm) long. The leaves are obovate in shape with nine to eleven deep, coarse lobes. The tips of the lobes will have a small point or bristle at the tip. The upper surface of the leaf has a glossy dark green color while the underside is a pale green with prominent veins. The petioles are fairly short. 
The autumn colors will be a dark red eventually changing to brown in color. Like other Oak trees Red Oaks will hold their leaves long into late Autumn to Winter, generally only falling during very windy times.
Red Oak trees produce a taproot when young that is eventually replaced by wide branching roots. 
Red Oak trees are monoecious and produce both male and female flowers. The flowers of Red Oak appear in early Spring lasting for 1-2 weeks. Male flowers hang down on catkins several inches long while female flowers are small green-red spikes that occur near the tips of the previous year’s growth (leaf axils). 
Successfully pollinated female flowers will begin producing acorns in clusters of 2-5. Red Oak acorns take two years to mature. Ripe acorns will be brown and typically will fall from the tree between August and October.
Red Oak Acorns are typically shorter and fatter than White Oak, and are normally 2 cm (3/4″) wide by 3 cm (1-1/8″) tall
Acorn / nut production of Red Oak Trees
Red Oak trees can begin producing acorns by the age of 25, but won’t produce large crops of acorns until age 50. Large crops occur at irregular intervals between 2-5 years. And individual trees will gain their own nut producing characteristics in that some trees will always have abundant crops of acorns while others will not. The mechanism for this is unknown at present, but growing conditions, crown size, and available sunlight are the most likely factors influencing nut harvests. 
In a hardwood forest, most Red Oaks cannot survive the shade that the dense forest canopy provides. If an area is clearcut, while an acorn may germinate and grow for a year or two, often the above ground growth is lost to fire, animal predation, or competition shade-out. However, the small seedling stump will often sprout new growth the following Spring from a more advanced root system, resulting in a better chance at survival.
How to grow Red Oak from acorns from seed
Growing a Red Oak *can* be as easy as grabbing an acorn in the Fall and planting it. But, most often the acorns you randomly pick up will not be viable. So, to ensure you maximize your chances of successfully growing a Red Oak tree from seed, I will explain the key steps you need to do to harvest, test the viability, and plant Red Oak acorns.
Harvesting Red Oak Acorns
Once you’ve located some Red Oak trees that are producing nuts and have permission to harvest, all we need to do know is to wait for them to begin falling. Acorns are a favorite staple food to much wildlife, meaning that once naturally ripen and begin falling from the tree we need to promptly harvest them to ensure we get some. The best is to harvest directly from the tree once they are naturally falling, as there will be limited to no-risk of weevil or insect damage.
Before we proceed with planting or stratifying acorns, we need to check if they are viable. To do this, twist and remove the cap from the acorn. Inspect the area under the cap to see if there are any tiny holes. Any acorn with a hole should be discarded, as there is most likely insect larvae inside the acorn and it is no longer viable.
Healthy looking acorns should undergo one further test in that they should be set in a large bowl of water and let to rest for sixty seconds. At the end of sixty seconds discard any acorn that floats, as they are unviable.
Acorns that have no insect holes and sink in water should be viable.
Cold stratification of Red Oak acorns
Red Oak acorns germinate following a period of cold moist stratification of approximately 60-120 days. Stratification is the process in which the nut is exposed to cold moist conditions for a prolonged period. This ‘tricks’ the acorn into thinking it has gone through a Winter, and it will germinate after reaching warmer temperatures and moisture. Nature stratifies acorns naturally when a squirrel plants it into the ground, which then germinate in the Spring. I will know describe three different methods to stratify/plant acorns. All of these methods work. 
1 – Cold stratify acorns in the refrigerator
To cold stratify your Red Oak Acorns in the refrigerator, mix up sphagnum peat moss and sand (50/50) and get it moist. It should be wet enough so that when you squeeze a handful only a few drops of water fall out of it. The reason we want to use a mixture of sphagnum peat moss and sand is so there is enough moisture to prevent the acorns from drying out.
Place this mixture into a plastic bag and bury the acorns inside of it. Place this bag into the refrigerators for 120 days. At the end of the 120 days, the acorns can be planted in the ground or in pots as described in the next section.
2 – Winter sow the acorns
Winter Sowing is a method for starting seeds that takes advantage of cold outdoor temperatures to naturally stratify seeds, just as naturally happens in nature. To Winter Sow acorns simply plant them 1-2” deep inside pots filled with moist potting soil. The pots should be at least 9” (23 cm) deep, as acorns germinate underground and produce a taproot long before you see anything above ground.
Place the pots outside in Autumn and protect them from enterprising squirrels with chicken wire or hardware cloth. If your area doesn’t have prolonged periods of freezing (but still gets cold), then you can simply leave the pots in a shady area until Spring. Periodically check them to make sure they don’t completely dry out.
If your region can have extended periods below freezing, then you should overwinter the pots inside an unheated garage or shed. The reason for this is acorns cannot be allowed to freeze. If an acorn freezes solid, it will die and not germinate. Trust me on this, as I have frozen my acorns before!
Winter sown acorns should germinate and sprout above ground in mid to late Spring.
3 – Direct sowing Red Oak acorns
Acorns can also be direct sown in Autumn. Simply harvest your acorns and test their viability as previously described. Then, plant them about 2” deep where you want the tree to grow. Protect the acorn by laying down hardware cloth of chicken wire over the top so Squirrels don’t dig up the acorns. Acorns should germinate by late Spring.
Establishment of Red Oak trees
Young Red Oak seedlings can be planted out into their final location as soon as they have leaves. Simply dig a hole as deep as your pot and roughly the same size. As an optional step you can add a handful of compost to the bottom of the hole, but no need for anything else.
Fill your hole with water and wait for it to drain. If it drained in less than 5 minutes, refill it with water and wait for it to drain again. Then, plant your Oak seedling and backfill to the same height that it was in the pot. You can add a small layer of mulch around the base, but do not let the mulch cover the bark of the trunk.
Caring for Red Oak seedlings
Seedlings of Oak trees should get several gallons of water (12 L) 2-3 times per week depending on regular rainfall for the first year. After the first year, you can just provide deep watering during prolonged times of drought. The key thing is to pay attention to your tree and the weather. If it has been very dry, look at the leaves. If the margins are crispy, add a deep watering to the seedling.
Protecting young Red Oak Seedlings
Seedlings of Red Oak trees are at risk of damage from deer and rabbits. In summer, deer will browse on younger tender stems or trunks. In Winter deer will eat them due to food shortages, and bucks will rub their antlers on the young trees. Rabbits will also girdle the tree by chewing the bark when food is scarce in Winter.
Red Oak trees are invaluable to wildlife. They host numerous species of butterfly, moth, and other insects. These numerous insects make Red Oak one of the best trees for attracting birds to your yard, as a mature Oak can contain enough caterpillars to rear baby birds to fledgling.
In total there are over 180 species of North American native insects that can be hosted by Red Oak trees, making it an ecological powerhouse. It hosts several species of hairstreak butterflies as well as several species of skipper butterflies. But the bulk of the insects a Red Oak tree will host is moths. There are nearly 100 species of moth that have been documented as being hosted on Red Oak trees. Other insects hosted include tree hoppers and numerous woodboring insects. 
Many birds and their babies depend on the caterpillars that are hosted by Red Oak trees. As documented by Doug Tallamy, the numerous insects hosted by Red Oak result in a smorgasbord of caterpillars for birds to dine on.  
Beyond caterpillars, the acorns of the Red Oak are actually eaten by many birds. Blue Jays, turkey, woodpeckers and other species all enjoy acorns of Red Oak when available. In fact, Blue Jays will cache acorns for future use, not unlike Squirrels. It is speculated that Blue Jays are a main vector for the spread of Red Oak trees as they may help the acorns travel farther distances than squirrels.
Numerous birds make nests in Red Oak trees. Birds that build cup style nests such as the Robin or Cardinal will make nests in Red Oaks. And various woodpeckers can make homes in dead Red Oak trees by excavating cavities.
Various animals enjoy the acorns of Red Oak trees. Deer, chipmunks, mice, and squirrels all will eat acorns. Squirrels and chipmunks all bury acorns for future food later in Winter. It has been documented that most are eaten right away by rodents or deer, upwards of 99% of an acorn crop will be consumed within 20 m of the tree. 
Deer also will browse seedlings and saplings of Red Oak trees. And rabbits will gnaw on bark of young saplings.
Pests and Disease
Like other trees, Oaks are not without their share of disease. And while there are numerous diseases that can effect the appearance of Red Oak, there are only a few that can regularly cause fatalities.
Open Wounds or fires can cause stress and damage to trees and kill the cambial tissue at the base. But open wounds are a serious threat to any Oak tree as most diseases are transmitted via insects. And, the natural defense of a tree is it’s bark. But fungal spores on the feet of insects can be the beginning of the end of any Oak tree. So, as stated before, don’t prune Oak trees when insects are active! 
Oak Wilt is an often-fatal vascular disease that effects Northern Red Oak and can kill trees in the same year they are infected. Beetles of the Nitidulidae family spread this disease by feeding on sap near open wounds of Oak Trees. The disease is also spread via root entanglement if one tree becomes infected. 
Shoestring root rot is a disease that generally only effects stressed and weakened trees. Forms of stress and damage that make the tree more susceptible include fire, wounds, other diseases, or drought. Fungus that is able to get to the wood will cause cankers that can damage the bole of the tree. The effect is most often a weakened and ugly tree, but it generally survives without treatment.
The Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar) is an invasive species that defoliates many hardwood trees in North America, including the Red Oak tree. A single defoliation is often not fatal, but it can lead to a weakened tree that is more susceptible to other diseases. 
A few other pests that should be mentioned is the carpenter worm, Columbian timber beetle, Oak Timberworm, Red Oak Borer, and the Two-lined Chestnut Borer. All of these insects create open wounds for others to spread disease. And their holes that they bore into the wood damages the commercial lumber value of the tree.
Galls can often form on Red Oak trees. There are numerous species that can cause this, but they mostly only effect the cosmetics of the tree and are not damaging. 
Deer and rabbit damage of Red Oak trees
Deer will make use of young growth of Red Oak trees for food all year. They will eat seedlings and prune saplings. In winters with deep snow, rabbits will chew on the bark of young Red Oak seedlings and saplings. The damage from a rabbit can be enough to kill the young tree.
Where you can buy Red Oak
Straight species Red Oak trees aren’t typically sold in big-box garden centers, as they generally only have hybrids or varieties. 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 giving my opinion based on my direct experience.
Uses of Red Oak
Red Oaks make excellent shade trees due to their beautiful shape, attractive foliage in both summer/fall, and their fast growth rate (particularly when young). Just make sure you space them far enough apart to give the crowns room to develop.
Red Oak can be a great selection for a street tree as it is pollution resistant and keeps a deep root system.
Red Oak makes beautiful lumber that is often clear from knots and defects, strong, and hard. In fact it is one of the hardest forms of lumber that is available in large quantities in the domestic United States. 
The Red Oak tree had over sixty medicinal and edible uses by 15 Native American tribes.  The vast majority of these uses centered on the bark as the primary part of the tree used. Some of the medicinal uses of Red Oak trees by Native Americans included the following:
- Bark was used to make a poultice for healing sores and wounds
- A decoction of bark could be used to treat throat/voice problems or internal blood diseases
- Tonic beverage could be made from bark
- Infusion of bark/roots was used to treat diarrhea
- The wood was used for making tools/furniture
In it’s native range, Red Oak can often be found growing amongst numerous other trees. It’s wide adaptability mean it is very common as a dominant tree in a hardwood forest, or amongst other hardwoods. Some common trees that grow near Red Oak include the following;
- Black Cherry
- Black Gum
- Black Walnut
- Hickory (Shagbark, Pignut, Mockernut)
- Northern White Cedar
- Eastern Red Cedar
- Sweet Gum
- Tulip Poplar
- Pin Oak tree
- White Oak
- White Pine
- Chestnut Oak
Numerous lower growing shrubs and trees are also associated with Red Oak. These can make for excellent displays in shadier or sunnier locations. Some smaller tree/shrub species that grow well under Red Oak include the following;
- Flowering Dogwood
- Eastern Redbud Tree
- Pawpaw Tree
- Eastern Hophornbeam
For herbaceous plant suggestions for Red Oak, it all depends on available sunlight. But due to the eventual large canopy of Red Oak it is good to research full shade plants that can naturally act as understory plants. Some of these would include the following;
- Virginia Creeper
- Virginia Bluebells
- Dutchman’s Breeches
- White wood Aster
- Wild Violet
The Red Oak Tree is a beautiful large tree that has utility as a shade or ornamental tree. An integral and immensely important part of the Eastern Native American ecosystem in that it provides large value to all sorts of wildlife from insects to birds, deer, and squirrels. It’s fast growth rate make it an excellent choice for home landscaping, and the beautiful foliage in Summer and Fall make it a great tree to add curb appeal to any home.
Find more native trees here
 – Sander, Ivan L. “Quercus rubra L. Northern red oak.” Silvics of North America 2 (1990): 727-733. Accessed 15NOV2022
 – Dyderski, Marcin K., et al. “Biological flora of the British Isles: Quercus rubra.” Journal of Ecology 108.3 (2020): 1199-1225. Accessed 24NOV2022.
 – Bourdo, Eric A. The Illustrated Book of Trees: A Visual Guide to More Than 250 Species. Salamander Books, 1999.
 – List of insects feeding on Quercus Rubra. Illinoiswildflowers.info. Accessed 24NOV2022.
 – Woziwoda, Beata, Dominik Kopec, and Janusz Witkowski. “The negative impact of intentionally introduced Quercus rubra L. on a forest community.” Acta societatis botanicorum Poloniae 83.1 (2014).
 – T.A. Nikolai, P.E. Rieke, and N.T. McVay, Leaf Mulch Forum “Research and Real-World Techniques“, Crop and Soil Sciences Department, Michigan State University
 – Rexrode, Charles O., and H. Daniel Brown. Oak wilt. Vol. 29. US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, 1983. Accessed 25NOV2022
 – Sork, Victoria L. “Examination of seed dispersal and survival in red oak, Quercus rubra (Fagaceae), using metal-tagged acorns.” Ecology 65.3 (1984): 1020-1022.
 – Crow, Thomas R. “Reproductive mode and mechanisms for self-replacement of northern red oak (Quercus rubra)-a review.” Forest science 34.1 (1988): 19-40. Accessed 24NOV2022
 – García, Daniel, María-José Bañuelos, and Gilles Houle. “Differential effects of acorn burial and litter cover on Quercus rubra recruitment at the limit of its range in eastern North America.” Canadian Journal of Botany 80.10 (2002): 1115-1120. Retrieved 24NOV2022
 – Tallamy, Douglas W. The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees. Timber Press, 2021.
 – Keating, Steven T., and William G. Yendol. “Influence of selected host plants on gypsy moth (Lepidoptera: Lymantriidae) larval mortality caused by a baculovirus.” Environmental Entomology 16.2 (1987): 459-462.
 – Stebbins, Fannie Adelle. Insect galls of Springfield, Massachusetts, and vicinity. Springfield, Mass. : Springfield Museum of Natural History. 1909: pp.139
 – Churchill, Jennifer. The woodworkers complete shop reference, Cincinnati, Ohio : Popular Woodworking Books (2003). pp145
 – North American Ethnobotany Database. Quercus rubra. Accessed 24NOV2022.
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