The Symbol of the Oak
Throughout the pages of history, the oak has to be considered one of the most important trees. Often the tree has been associated with strength and longevity. In England, Robin Hood and his companions took advantage of the mighty tree by camouflaging themselves high in the canopy, while hiding out from their would-be captors. Unfortunately, in the United States, the oak took on a more sinister form, as it branches became the preferred place for a hanging or lynching that sometimes occurred in the Old West or the South during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The oak is a common hardwood tree found all across the northern hemisphere and sub-tropics. China has the most species of endemic oaks (about 100), but there are many of these trees to be found in North America and Europe as well. Oaks vary greatly in size, range and specific ecological site. The oaks are a family of trees that also includes the beech and chestnut tree. The scientific name for this group of trees is the Fagaceae, more commonly referred to as the Beech family.
The oak tree has spirally arranged leaves that are lobed. Many oaks have a deeply indented leaf, but this feature is by no means universal. Also, the oak tree may have leaves that are either deciduous or evergreen. Some oak foliage, like the Chinkapin or Scarlet oak, are distinguished by their brilliant autumn foliage, while other species, such as the live oak will hold on to the hard, waxy leaf for the entire year.
Red and White Oaks
When identifying different types of oaks be sure to take a close look at the leaf margin, for this is where you will be able to distinguish the red oaks from the white oaks. The white oak grouping, which includes the white oak, chestnut oak, bur oak and post oak, will always have a smooth edge. Also, indentation in the white oak leaf tends to be less, but this is not a rock solid rule. On the other hand, the red oaks, such as the scarlet oak, pin oak and blackjack oak will always have a serrated leaf margin. Again deeply indented leaves are common, but not always present among the red oaks.
Winter time identification of oaks is usually not that difficult because many of these trees are evergreen. And even among the deciduous species, many of these trees will hang on their fall colors throughout the winter. If you do need to look at the bark, a general rule of thumb is that the white oaks have lighter, scaly bark, while that of the red oak is rough and almost black.
The Final Product
Since some of the larger oaks are often harvested for finished wood products, it is important to note that the wood of the oaks varies in durability and color. Not surprisingly, the white oak is usually lighter in color than its darker counterpart, but more importantly, the white oaks have a tighter and more water-resistant grain in the planed or sawed board.