Oak Tree vs Maple Tree: 4 Major Leaf and Bark Differences

Mighty oak tree in green field under blue skies with clouds, spring landscape under blue sky

Oak trees and maple trees. What comes to mind when you hear these words? Maybe it is the sticky syrup that pairs perfectly with a pancake, or the acorns that squirrels love to snatch up.

In general, oak and maple trees can be determined by their leaves. White oak tree leaves usually have a rounded tip, while red oak trees have tips that tend to be more pointed. Maple tree leaves have veins, are pinnate, and made up of three single leaves to create one large leaf.

So, is one tree better than the other? If you pick maples vs oak or vice versa, will you regret it? The truth is, either might be perfect for you. One might also end up being better than the other based on your needs and expectations. We are here to give you some insight that will help you come to a conclusion… so, come along!

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What Are The Major Differences Between Oak and Maple Trees?

There’s no argument about it. All trees are different, depending on fruit, leaves, bark, or even just the potential for growth or ability to adapt to difficult environments.

Some trees do better around water, while some don’t need it nearly as much. There are so many factors that go into determining different species and their applicable offshoots.

Specifically, though, you may be wondering not about these finite details that could be discussed for hours, but the actual differences between the trees themselves. 

Whether you are looking for lumber, to plant a new shade tree in the family backyard, or to plant something that will make your business attractive to customers as they walk through the door, knowing about what you are buying matters. 

Trees are nature, but they are also a product and, when it comes to deciding which product to obtain for your space, we want you to have all the important details!

Well, here are a few things to know about the specific differences between maple and oak trees.

Is Maple Harder Than White Oak?

In a word, yes. 

With further explanation, yes… but.

Maple and oak are both hardwood trees, but maple is harder than oak. However, oak is more stable than maple, especially when working with flooring and products that require thinner, more finely-cut pieces of wood. 

If you are looking to buy a tree for your yard, this difference does not matter nearly as much as it would for someone looking to source the best kind of wood for a new home or business. 

To give you some quantitative information, maple ranks at 1450 while white oak is at a slightly lesser 1360 and, another species, red oak comes in at 1290 on the Janka hardness rating scale.

Are Oak Trees Bigger Than Maple?

Maple trees actually have a much greater range of sizes than oak trees. Most maples grow to a height of 10-45 meters, which translates to about 35-150 feet, more or less. Other times, these trees can end up being less than 10 meters tall and will appear more like shrubs due to the multiple small trunks stemming out at ground level.

Because some species of maple are actually shrubs, their mature heights may be as short as 8 feet tall. These smaller maples may also be able to grow in containers due to their small size, even if just for the beginning of their life span.

As for oak trees, the small ones may reach about 6-9 meters, or about 20-30 feet, whereas larger oak trees will reach 30 meters or 100 feet. Whereas maple trees may hold the title for the broadest range of growth, oaks are known for something else.

Oak trees show significant growth not only in their height but also in a horizontal manner. Everything from as low as the roots to as high as the tallest branch is likely to grow far from the middle of the tree. Maple trees of a similar size would not exhibit this same lateral sort of growth. Keep this in mind if you are looking to fit a tall tree into a small patch of property.

Major Oak Tree and Maple Tree Leaf and Bark Differences

To really, truly differentiate between oak and maple, there first needs to be a proper understanding of the trees.

There are 2 main categories of oak trees, red and white oak. Within these categories, in North America alone, there are dozens of different varieties. Altogether, when we account for new varieties, hybrids, and oaks that appear internationally, there are about 500 varieties of oak trees. 

Luckily, we can divide oak trees between red and white, while there are fewer (about 100) varieties of maple trees. This means that we can just call them all maple and keep the comparison coming. 

When it’s all said and done, there are really two major parts of a tree that we can compare- the leaves and bark.

Without further adieu, the 4 major differentiating factors between oaks (white and red) and maple trees.

Oak Leaves Vs. Maple Leaves Differences

So… leaves. Arguably one of the most important aspects of a tree. They are the blob that children learn to draw atop what would otherwise be a brown line. They give the tree character and change into a beautiful sea of color during the colder months of the year. 

The chemical composition of leaves themselves can actually be related to soil conditions. Remember how we mentioned trees that are more adaptable to less ideal conditions? These are often selected for afforestation, and studies have been done that show that there is a significant difference in those leaves of trees which have different soil conditions to nurture the growth.

How could one possibly know all of the intricacies, all of the differences between the leaves of an oak and a maple tree? We are here to help with just that question.

Oak vs. Maple Leaf Shape

White oak leaves usually have a rounded tip, while their red cousins have tips that tend to be more pointed. 

Similarly, the lobe of a white oak is also rounded without bristles coming up at the tip of the lobe. This means that the serrations along the outer edges of the white oak leaf are also rounded.

Red oak leaves have pointed lobes that do, in fact, sport some bristles at the lobe tips. This species of oak is a bit trickier than its counterpart because there is a greater variety of leaf shapes that might appear. The edges of red oak leaves may be round and more smoothly serrated, or they might sport harsher, more acute edges.

The leaves of a maple tree are pinnate and actually made up of three single leaves to create this one larger leaf that we see. The individual leaves are curved, but irregularly so, sort of like those of a white oak but not quite. 

These hard maple leaves have lobes that are compared to the spaces between the fingers of a human hand. They are rounded, a bit spaced out without being too far apart, and characteristic of a hard maple leaf.

If you happen to be dealing with a soft maple leaf, the lobes will be shaped more like a ‘V’ than a ‘U’ because of the sharper edges of the leaf as a whole.

Maple Leaf Veins (& Petioles)

The maple leaf petiole, which we see just before the veins start, is long and reddish. It also appears to be coarsely toothed throughout the leaf. One small downside is that this is subject to attack by a ‘maple petiole borer’, a wasp that will not cause major damage but will certainly act as a hindrance to the success of your maple tree.

The veins of both oaks and maples are thin and spread through the leaves themselves.

Oak Vs. Maple Tree Bark Differences

Close up of maple tree trunk in park at summer
Close up of maple tree trunk in park at summer.

Aren’t trees classified by their leaves? How else can you tell apart an oak and a maple if not for the shape of the leaves as you walk past? 

What is one to do in the winter when trying to determine the species of tree at which they are looking? That’s easy!

Bark is a great, relatively easy, classifier of tree species during the winter months when trees (other than evergreens) have lost all of their pretty leaves that normally help us differentiate between them. 

So, that’s all well and good but… what are the differences in bark that might be useful to us?

Oak vs. Maple Tree Bark Shade

Hard Maple usually exhibits a color that is both lighter and more consistent throughout the trunk and branches. 

Soft maple, however, is typically a darker color, mixing in shades of brown, red, and even grey at times.

Young oak trees often have a silvery brown look, while mature oak trees will see a change in the color of their bark. Of course, it all depends on the species but the bark may become a light grey in some white oak varieties. On the contrary, red oak varieties may shift toward a very dark color, almost black looking at times.

This is one reason why it is difficult to classify comparisons in ‘this’ vs ‘that’ when trees have so many species and even more varieties within those. It really is ‘this entire category of plant life’ vs ‘a different, yet related whole category of plant life.’

Oak vs. Maple Tree Bark Texture

A young red maple may have smooth, unbroken bark that looks quite different from the cracked-looking, rougher bark of, say, a northern red oak.

Somewhere in the middle would fall the scarlet oak, which has some vertical cracks and seams in the bark that is otherwise smooth, more similar to the young red maple than the northern red oak, funny enough. 

Generally, the bark of young oak trees is smooth, though this may not be true of every single variety. Especially as these trees mature, the bark will become more cracked with deep ridges along the bark. 

What Defines An Oak Tree?

Let’s summarize some of the finer points of what it really means to talk about an oak tree.

To identify oak trees, first, you will want to look for the leaves, if there are any. You’ll expect to see deeply lobed leaves that may sport either pointed or rounded tips (we know, they just can’t make it easy on us, right?)

If you cannot get a good look at those leaves for whatever reason, winter, the height of the branches, or some other reason, look to the bark for some answers!

The bark should have a scaly look due to its ridges and the deep fissures running along the trunk. If the tree is visibly younger, with a thinner trunk and shorter overall height, the bark may appear smooth. This doesn’t mean it’s not an oak tree, just that it is not yet fully matured. 

The color of the bark may be whitish silver, but it could get as dark as black. So, knowing the color of the bark may not be as helpful in this scenario.

The fruit of an oak tree is more commonly referred to as a nut, the acorn in particular. If properly prepared, humans can eat these nuts just like any other! 

Keep these key factors in mind, and you’ll be able to distinguish oaks in no time!

What Defines A Maple Tree?

Maple tree turning yellow in autumn in a public park.
Maple tree turning yellow in autumn in a public park.

We’ve had the chance to talk about identifying an oak tree in summary, so now let’s go over maples!

To identify maple trees, the best indicator is the leaves. Maple tree leaves will have between 3 and 9 lobes, and some will have prominent veins (the petioles.) Many of these leaves will have serrated lobes. 

All of these factors together (amount of lobes, shape of the leaf as a whole, serration, and indentations on the leaf) will help to identify specific varieties within the maple category.

In the fall months, maple trees find their leaves changing color. You’ll be able to spot shades of red, yellow, burgundy, and orange. Sometimes a single tree will have a mixture of all of these colors!

In the summer months, and as they grow back in the spring, maple leaves are a dark green color. They have fruit in the form of winged seeds. These are sometimes known as helicopters.

A cool tip: humans can eat these nut-like fruits, samaras, too! Unlike acorns, these can be plucked right from the tree and are actually said to be tastier when picked this way, as opposed to being collected as the tree releases them naturally. The more you know!

Finally, we couldn’t forget about the fact that maple trees produce the sap which is the ever-important base of maple syrup. Yum! But also… sticky. More to consider, this sap could be a pro or a con. Maybe it’s both- you’ll have to decide this for yourself.

Lock these characteristics in your brain, so that the next time you try to distinguish a maple tree, you won’t be doing so in vain.

What Are The Most Valuable Hardwood Trees?

In temperate climates, both oak and maple trees are among the most valuable hardwood trees. They stand among ash, cherry, walnut, and tulipwood in this categorization.

Furniture is their main use, but joinery and interior decoration are other popular ways to incorporate these hardwood trees into one’s home, office, or other business space.

Is Oak Better Than Maple?

This question is commonly asked but does not have a satisfying answer. Unfortunately, there are just too many factors to compare and too many differences in what people hope to get out of a tree (or its lumber) to be able to classify one as ‘better’ than the other.

That’s All For Now!

Now that we’ve learned a little more about the differences between maple and oak trees, as well as what makes them unique, it’s clear that trees are complex organisms that deserve thorough research and understanding before you choose a specific kind.

Maple might be harder than oak but oak is more stable. Maple is better suited for smaller square footages, while oak will not produce a sticky sap. There are many more factors like these that go into the decision of which one is ‘the one.’

When one tree is eventually selected, whether you are planting the tree itself or looking to harvest its wood, we hope that you feel confident in your decision.

It’s not likely that you’ll run into huge issues or downsides with a maple or an oak tree, but keep these factors in mind as you continue to look into what you will eventually purchase. 

The fruit of each tree will likely attract some little critters, but can also act as the star of a fun foraging activity for those with kids (or anyone who wants to mindfully use all of their resources!) 

The leaves are all similar, but different. The bark tells you things that the leaves wouldn’t be able to and is a great substitute for those trying to distinguish species amid winter. 

Both maple and oak trees are sturdy, beneficial to own, produce great wood, and offer a source of shade when you are in need. 

But, don’t forget that each tree is individual. Expect a beautiful touch of the natural world in your backyard, in your home, or anywhere else that you are in the presence of these two great hardwood trees. 

References

James C. Finley and Sanford S. Smith. October 2009. From the Woods: Ten Important Hardwoods. PennState Extension.

Ovington, J. D. (1956). The composition of tree leaves. Forestry: An International Journal of Forest Research, 29(1), 22-28.

Koczan, G., Karwat, Z., & Kozakiewicz, P. (2021). An attempt to unify the Brinell, Janka and Monnin hardness of wood on the basis of Meyer law. Journal of Wood Science67(1), 1-16.

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