Oak trees (Quercus spp.) are a common feature in folk stories, poetry, and songs for their noble stature, strength, and long lifespan. Compared to other plants, and even other trees, oaks are fairly slow-growing. Most oak species average 12-24 inches of growth each year, but this rate of growth varies widely among species, growth zones, and changes as trees age.
Lifespan varies widely among oak species. While most oak trees live around 100-150 years, there are a few species that live for less than 70 years, such as the laurel oak. Rare species of live oak trees can even be over 2,000 years old, such as the Angel Oak Tree in South Carolina!
These long-lived plants aren’t just stately additions to a spacious property. They are soil stabilizers and improve soil fertility. They also protect groundwater and are a keystone species upon which many other species depend for food and shelter.
Facts About Oak Tree Lifespan
Oak trees are part of the beech family. They can grow as shrubs or as true trees, depending on the environment in which they are growing.
Oaks are hardy plants that can handle freezing winters and scorching summers. Native throughout the Northern Hemisphere, these important plants can be found throughout cool temperate and warm tropical climates.
North America is home to the largest number of oak species.
Approximately 90 different species of oak trees can be found in the United States, while 160 species grow in Mexico. China is the second-largest center of oak growth, with approximately 100 species known to grow there.
Humans have discovered approximately 500 known species of oaks in total.
Now, we aren’t going to get into the specifics of every species. We wouldn’t even want to read all of that! Instead, we are going to focus on some common species that you are likely to have on your own property.
|BEST HARDINESS ZONE
|Japanese evergreen oak
|Coast live oak
|Interior live oak
|Canyon live oak
|Southern live oak
|Southern red oak
Most Common Oak Trees in the United States
Remember, there are at least 500 species of oak trees out there.
Another important skill oak trees have is that they can naturally create hybrid species. That makes our task of extending the life of all oak trees a bit of a challenge.
Oak trees break down into two varieties: red oaks and white oaks.
The main difference between the two is their leaf shape. White oak tree leaves have rounded leaf tips, while red oak leaves tend to be pointed. Of the two, white oak tree acorns develop faster than the acorns of the red oaks. Our list includes trees from both groups.
For now, we’re going to stick with the most common species in North America. For most of our readers, these are the most common species you are likely to see at a nursery or have growing on your property already.
We are also going to include some information that will hopefully help you ensure your tree reaches maturity and lives a long, fruitful life.
Lifespan: 100 years
This wide-spread species of oak belongs to the red oak group. It is native and widespread throughout eastern and central North America. If you live in any coastal state from Maine to Texas, or inland as far as Michigan, Ontario, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, or eastern Texas, then chances are good you have seen this common oak.
Black oaks grow best on well-drained, silty clay. This tree is generally considered a slow grower, only averaging 8-12 inches of growth until its roots are established. However, once it is settled in, if it has optimal growth conditions, these trees can grow two to three feet a year.
If well taken care of, a black oak can provide shade and shelter to wildlife for about 100 years.
Lifespan: 200-300 years
The Bur oak’s botanical name is Quercus macrocarpa, the Oak with the large fruit. We’re going to go out on a limb and call this a bit of an understatement. This oak can grow to over 80 feet in height, has leaves that are over 10 inches long, and produces acorns bigger than limes!
Bur Oak, also called the Mossycup Oak, gets its name from the shaggy acorn cap that tops its acorns. Once sprouted, these trees have a moderate growth rate and can grow more than 20 inches each year.
Bur oaks are often found in parries, open woods and stream edges, preferably closer to the water. One of the oldest Bur Oaks, the Bicentennial Tree, is believed to be more than 400 years old. Most specimens are believed to live around 200-300 years.
Lifespan: 50-70 years
The Laurel Oak, Quercus laurifolia, is a fast-growing oak that can reach over 100 feet tall. This is a relatively short-lived species when compared to others on our list, often dying off after about 60 years.
It is a good oak for more humid and rain-heavy climates but is not very picky when it comes to temperatures. It can be found in just about any coastal region south of New York and grows on the west coast up through Washington state. It grows well from Florida to Southern California, and down into Mexico.
Lifespan: 60-80 years
Quercus nigra, the water oak, is native to the eastern and south-central United States. You can find this oak in all the coastal states from New Jersey to Texas, and inland as far as Oklahoma, Kentucky, and southern Missouri.
Compared to some of the other oaks on this list, the water oak is pretty picky when it comes to growing conditions.
As a wetland tree, it occurs naturally in lowlands and up to 1500 ft in altitude. It is adapted to wet, swampy areas and can tolerate well-draining soil. It grows well in sandy soils or red clays.
It does not do well on crowded plots and does not tolerate even light shade.
This specialized oak will only last for several decades. The water oak is relatively short-lived, making it 60-80 years on average.
However, it is a fast grower and reproduces quickly, making it an excellent candidate for restoring bottomland hardwood forests after agriculture or pine plantation usage.
Lifespan: 150 years
Quercus palustris, the pin oak, or swamp Spanish oak, is a species of red oak. The Pin Oak gets its name from the short branchlets that grow along the greater branches and limbs.
Here are another wet-tolerant species and is sometimes also called a Water Oak, though our two examples are quite different plants. Unlike the Water Oak Quercus nigra, the Pin Oak Quercus palustris is more commonly found in more northern, interior states and all the way up to Ontario, Canada.
Pin oaks grow primarily on poorly drained floodplain and river-bottom soils. Generally, pin oaks grow well near high clay content as well.
While they like wet soil, they do not grow in areas that have standing water throughout the majority of the growing season.
The Pin Oak is also much longer lived than the Water Oak, reaching about 150 years, or roughly double, that of our other water-tolerant oak.
Pin oak is one of the most commonly used landscaping oaks in its native growth zone because it is easy to transplant, grows very quickly, and is tolerant of pollution.
Lifespan: up to 1,000+ years
If you want to impress and have the acreage and southeast climate for it, then the live oak is the way to go. Quercus virginiana, also known as the southern live oak, is an evergreen oak tree native to the Southeastern United States.
Many oaks are loosely called “live oak,” but a true southern live oak is one of the most iconic trees in the United States, particularly in the Old South.
Many of the oldest trees and largest trees on the eastern coast are live oak trees. Live oaks are believed to be capable of living up to 1,000 years in their native region.
The most famous specimen, Angel Oak in Johns Island, South Carolina, is believed to be 400-500 years old. It’s raised 66.5 ft tall and measures 28 ft in circumference! Even more interesting, the longest branch on the Angel Oak is 187 feet and its shade covers 17,200 square feet.
Some folks contend that the tree could be as old as 1500 years, but many arborists suspect that its true age is closer to 500 years. Either way, that is nothing to shake a stick at.
Oak Tree Care
Let’s start by stating that each species of oak tree has its own care requirements based on its natural habitat.
In general, oak trees prefer full sun and well-drained soil, unless you are dealing with a Pin Oak or Water Oak, of course.
Typically, they are well suited to the natural change of seasons. Most oaks can handle hot, dry summers and cold, wet winters, especially once they are established.
Oaks can handle a good soaking in winter if you are having a dry season, and it is also safe to water them a time or two during a dry summer. Be sure to water them gradually all day so that the surrounding soil becomes thoroughly moist but not waterlogged.
It is not recommended to water a mature oak more than once each month. However, you can lay mulch at the base of your tree to keep the surrounding soil from drying out while also preventing nutrient-sapping weeds.
Remember that oaks do not appreciate shade. They are shade providers, but they do not require it for themselves. Full sun is the way to go to make sure that your oak grows up happy and healthy.
Common Oak Diseases
A large, stately oak tree is the pride of any homeowner lucky enough to have one, or several, on their property. But the smallest of organisms can fell a 100+-year-old oak tree. If you have a prized oak, here are some signs to watch out for:
Oak Leaf Blister
A fungal leaf disease caused by Taphrina caerulescens. Watch out for raised circular bumps on leaves, especially if they are more than 2 inches in diameter.
Most oak trees are vulnerable to this disease. While not deadly, it will result in your oak dropping a hefty amount of leaves.
Bur Oak Blight
This blight only affects bur oaks, as the name suggests. It is a slow-moving fungus that spreads on the leaves. Symptoms appear in late July or early August, though the fungus needs a long period of growth before your oak will begin showing symptoms.
The leaves of an infected tree will have black veins and will probably stick to the tree trunk or other leaves when they fall, thus spreading the pathogen.
While not directly deadly to the tree, this pathogen may weaken the tree enough that it becomes susceptible to pests and other diseases. If this occurs, the tree will weaken until it dies an untimely death, since these trees can live well over 200 years.
This is the one to really watch out for, as it will cause your prize oak to die off.
Oak Wilt is caused by a fungus that is carried by beetles that feed on oak sap. This fungus can affect all oak trees but is more likely to occur in red oak varieties.
You can spot this disease from sudden leaf wilt that starts from the top of the leaf and works its way down. You will also see sudden leaf drop. This condition can kill a mature oak within 3 weeks, so if you see the signs, be sure to consult your local arborist immediately.
Why Keep and Encourage Oak Tree Growth?
Aside from being a stately, shade-producing centerpiece to your property, oak trees are actually essential to the local environment.
Oak trees are known as keystone species – they play an irreplaceable role in soil ecology, the carbon cycle, and wildlife lifecycles.
The long-lived oak provides a stable, lasting home for a rich mix of shade-tolerant plants, insects, birds, squirrels, raccoons, and even deer.
So if you are harvesting wood for your next campfire or clearing land for a new house, consider keeping that old oak tree around. Chances are good that it will continue to provide shade for several decades, or even centuries, to come.
Brunori, A. M. E., Sdringola, P., Dini, F., Ilarioni, L., Nasini, L., Regni, L., … & Pelleri, F. (2017). Carbon balance and Life Cycle Assessment in an oak plantation for mined area reclamation. Journal of cleaner production, 144, 69-78.
Drobyshev, I., Niklasson, M., Linderson, H., Sonesson, K., Karlsson, M., Nilsson, S. G., & Lanner, J. (2008). Lifespan and mortality of old oaks–combining empirical and modelling approaches to support their management in Southern Sweden. Annals of forest science, 65(4), 1.
Di Filippo, A., Pederson, N., Baliva, M., Brunetti, M., Dinella, A., Kitamura, K., … & Piovesan, G. (2015). The longevity of broadleaf deciduous trees in Northern Hemisphere temperate forests: insights from tree-ring series. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 3, 46.
Garbelotto, M., Svihra, P., & Rizzo, D. (2001). New pests and diseases: Sudden oak death syndrome fells 3 oak species. California agriculture, 55(1), 9-19.
Davidson, J. M., Werres, S., Garbelotto, M., Hansen, E. M., & Rizzo, D. M. (2003). Sudden oak death and associated diseases caused by Phytophthora ramorum. Plant Health Progress, 4(1), 12.
Download My Free E-Book!
If you’re new to planting or want a refresher, take a peek at my guide on choosing and planting your very first tree. It specifically details planting trees in your yard and goes over the wide variety of options you have to start your #treejourney!