The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 25, 2003


Biodiversity Corner White Oak

photo by Kay Fairweather
Today, the last Friday in April, is Arbor Day in many states, including Massachusetts. This date was chosen because it a good time of year for tree planting (for most species in most states). The first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska in 1872, in response to a state proclamation urging settlers and homesteaders to plant trees that would provide shade, shelter, fruit, fuel, and beauty for residents of the largely treeless plains.

Name: Quercus alba or White Oak, also known as the Stave Oak. Worldwide, there are close to 450 species of oak; thirteen are native to forests of southern New England.

Where seen: Year round, along roadsides and in the woods. The one in the photo is in front of the old Highland School on School Street. There is a similarly handsome specimen on the east side of Lowell Street in front of the old North School. Both have the wide-spreading branches of white oaks grown in the open. Truly a legacy tree, the white oak may live to be over five hundred years old.

Distinguishing characteristics: Almost all oaks can be classified into either the red oak or white oak sub-genus on the basis of leaf shape and the time for an acorn to mature. The white oak typifies the whole white oak group. The leaves have smooth, rounded lobes and the acorns mature in a single season. Members of the red oak group have leaves with a bristle at the tip of each lobe, and the acorns take two years to mature. White oak leaves have 5 to 9 lobes, are hairless, turn red or brown in the fall, and often remain attached through the winter. The white oak is a large tree up to 100 feet tall with a rounded crown and widespread branches. Given room, the lower branches are often horizontal. In the forest, the white oak may loiter for decades in the middle canopy pondering the merits of growing up, yielding to faster-growing trees until a gap opens and it sees the light.

Culture: The white oak has a tap root so it can be difficult to transplant and is best grown from an acorn or a seedling not more than two years old. It is adaptable to habitat but prefers moist well-drained soil. Even in the open, it is a slow growing tree that will achieve a height of 15 feet in about 20 years.

White oak products: The first manufactured products of the Plymouth colony to be shipped abroad were oak barrel staves. White oak with its relatively small pores made excellent staves for whisky and wine barrels while the more porous wood of red oaks was suitable for the transportation of dry goods. White oak was also sought after for the ship-building trade. The following is taken from a 1798 public notice for the Salem Frigate. "Ye Sons of Freedom! All true lovers of the Liberty of your Country! step forth, and give your assistance in building the Frigate, to oppose French insolence and piracy. Let every man in possession of a White Oak Tree, be ambitious to be foremost in hurrying down the timber to SalemYour largest and longest trees are wanted, and the arms of them for Knees and Rifing Timber" The white oak is still a valuable lumber tree today.

Not just for squirrels: There are eight recipes for white oak acorns, including one for acorn ice-cream, in Steve Brill's Wild Vegetarian Cookbook. If Kimball's at Bates Farm can offer grapenut ice cream, why not acorn? If you are going to try making your own, read the book. Some preliminary treatment of the acorns is needed to leach out excess tannin. Leave the highly tannic red oak acorns for wildlife.

References: William Cullina, New England Wild Flower Society, Native Trees, Shrubs & Vines, 2002; Steve Brill, The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook; Sheila Connor, New England Natives · A Celebration of People and Trees, 1994; James Raymond Simmons, The Historic Trees of Massachusetts, 1919. All 4 books are in the Gleason library.

Submissions: Ye Sons and Daughters of Freedom, be ambitious to be foremost in hurrying down your notes, photos, or a whole column to Kay Fairweather at 392 School Street, Carlisle MA 01741 or to

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito