Red oak, white oak, which oak? Oak trees may all seem the same, but there are differences between them that are worth knowing of. Their growth rate, maximum size, bark and leaf color, and adaptability are some things to consider when planting an oak.
In truth, white oak trees have grey bark that tends to be divided into small, vertical blocks on the tree, while red oak trees have dark red/grey/brown bark with a scaly texture. White oaks live up to 600 years and grow 18in annually, while red oaks live up to 500 years and grow 24in annually.
Truthfully, oak trees are quite durable, they are beautiful, and they can grow to last incredibly long. When it comes down to it, personal preference is a big player in choosing a tree, and we want to give you the right keys to do so.
What is the Lifespan of a Red Oak vs. White Oak?
There’s no question that red and white oaks have significant differences, but what exactly does that mean? Why does it matter?
For one, the lifespan of these two species can say a lot about longevity, their prime, and what to expect from each species.
White oaks as individual plants live for around five hundred to six hundred years.
Lake Forest College research shows that red oaks, while similar in lifespan, do have a timeline that is cut a bit shorter than that of their white oak counterparts. Red oaks live about three hundred to five hundred years.
So, we can see that the lower end of the typical lifespan of a white oak corresponds to the higher end of that of the red oak species.
While let’s face it, that many hundreds of years are still almost longer than we may be able to comprehend, there is a good deal of variety within what that looks like between red and white oaks.
If you’re interested in learning how long oak trees live, you can view our guide and data of the full lifespan for each common oak tree here.
How Quickly Does An Oak Tree Grow?
Okay, now let’s talk about annual growth. White oaks grow incredibly slow at a rate of about 12 to 24 inches per year, which is relatively slow in relation to other trees of a similar caliber.
Red oaks are pretty similar in this regard. Thanks to research from the Nebraska Forest Service, we see that red oak trees grow at a rate of about 18 to 24 inches per year. On average, this happens just a little more quickly than the typical white oak.
Physical Characteristics of Red & White Oak Trees
One of the most identifiable traits of difference between white oak trees and red oak trees is, naturally, their physical traits. Most commonly, this includes their various bark, leaf, and color differences.
If you’re interested, you can read our guide with the pros and cons of the best oak trees to plant here.
Bark color provides the most noticeable difference between red and white oak trees and is KEY to identifying the difference between each.
Red Oak Tree Bark Color
When trees are still young and trunks are thin, the bark is a smooth light grey. The winter sun causes this light color to be quite reflective, and the bark is surprisingly smooth before age has a chance to change its design. This can sometimes be seen on large branches of a mature tree.
The bark of a red oak tree has a dark color that can only be described as red/grey/brown and has a scaly texture with thin, rounded ridges. Twigs end in a cluster of buds, and the red oak ends in reddish-brown twigs that display light-colored buds.
As the bark ages, ridges develop and leave the trunk a mix of shiny grey with dark fissures coming through. On old trees, the bark deepens further to be a dark brown shade. In very aged trees, the very bottom portion of the trunk sports fissures that are deeper and ridges that are no longer the flat, even texture of a middle-aged tree. In old trees, there is a more pronounced texture and darker colors that range from dark grey to black.
White Oak Tree Bark Color
The bark of a white oak tree is grey and tends to be divided into small, vertical blocks thanks to shallow fissures that run the length of the trunk. These thin, irregular flakes vary from light to a deeper, more ashen grey color.
Twigs are grey to purple in color, with buds that have blunt points. This is a bit unlike those of the red oak, which are a bit softer with more muted edges and coloring.
Leaf Shape and Color
Below, we’re going to break down the leaf shape and color for red oak trees and the major differences for each. If you’re interested in learning the difference between oak and maple trees overall, you can read our piece on the major leaf and bark differences of oak and maple trees here.
Red Oak Tree Leaf Characteristics
These moderately shiny leaves have a wide variety of colors throughout the seasons; in the summer, they range from light to deep, dark green, and then shift to gold or crimson as the summer creeps on.
The leaf of a red oak tree is smooth, almost shiny. As deciduous trees, they have some irregular bristle-tipped teeth. They, on average, are about 4 to 10 inches long and 3 to 6 inches wide.
In the fall months, the leaves of a red oak continue to deepen to either a vibrant orange or an even deeper crimson. In the fall, these leaves can be bright red, maroon, crimson, golden-yellow, yellow-brown, or a mix of color even darker but just as stunning.
White Oak Tree Leaf Characteristics
White oaks have leaves that range from 5 to 9 inches long, while their width is smaller at 2 to 4 inches. Instead of more jagged, bristled points, they have blunt-ended ones that vary in size and shape based on the location and other trees around.
The leaves are pretty thick and may not fall from the tree throughout the winter months, unlike those of the red oak. They will fall off eventually but do tend to last longer and provide a very picturesque contrast of bright white against a deep reddish-brown color.
Best Oak Tree Hardiness Zone
Do you ever find yourself wondering what exactly the best growing zone for an oak tree is? Have you wondered if that differs between red and white oaks? Well, we are certainly glad that you’ve kept reading this far because this one’s for you!
First, what on earth is a hardiness zone?
The USDA defines different hardiness zones across the country, which can be found on a map here. Oak trees fall into the lower number range, which means that they are hardier trees. Okay… and?
Well, this means that these trees can do well in lower temperatures.
The way that the USDA hardiness zones work is that each zone represents a range of 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The zones are then divided into letters A and B. They break down the 10-degree temperature range in half, the lower 5 degrees of the range and the higher.
For example, zone 5 represents minimum temperatures in the range of -10 to -20 F. SO, subzone 5a would be referring to temperatures of -10 to -15 F, and subzone 5b refers to -15 to -20 F.
Does that make sense? If you aren’t quite there, we get it. This is a lot of letters and numbers to think about. So, we are going to explain a little more.
A hardiness zone deals with the information on what types of plants can survive certain climate conditions, including the ability to survive in a given minimum temperature range. Queue our hardiness, or growing, zones!
Hardiness is a measure of how well a plant will survive cold temperatures; the USDA zones cover the basics of these temperatures and predictions but, like most systems, cannot account for every factor.
Precipitation, elevation, and freeze dates are some things that get overlooked in this system. It is, however, the standard, and so, therefore, we are explaining in those terms.
Now, does that make more sense? Let’s talk about what hardiness zones our oak trees fall into. Spoiler alert, this is one of the biggest similarities between these two species.
Also, if you’re thinking about planting an oak tree in your backyard, refer to the hardiness guide and check out our piece on planting oak trees in your backyard.
Best Red Oak Tree Hardiness Zone
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources tells us that red oak trees thrive in partial to full sun and can be found in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 7. Generally, temperatures from 10 to -30 Fahrenheit are going to be survivable when it comes to red oak.
Red oak trees generally can survive up to USDA hardiness zone 8. Red oak trees can live anywhere from 300-500 years and can reach a full height of up to 140ft. Annually, red oak trees can grow up to 24in per year.
White Oak Tree Hardiness Zone
Now, here’s some interesting info for white oak trees.
White oaks range from zone 3b to zone 9b. Generally, varieties of white oak trees can survive in temperatures as low as 30 to -40 Fahrenheit. White oak trees can live anywhere from 500-600 years, grow up to 18in annually, and reach a full height of 80ft.
The reason for this range that we see for both types of oak is that some varieties of white oak may be a bit less hardy than others. Additionally, there are many factors to consider when looking at these zones. Temperature is not the only extenuating circumstance that could cause issues with a tree.
Oak Tree Adaptability
Red and white oak trees are quite adaptable, but what kind of soil do they like, and where do they grow best? Well, let’s get to it!
Red Oak Tree Soil Preference
Red oaks can thrive in any soil. It doesn’t get much more adaptable than that, does it?
Red oak trees prefer moist, deep soil that is rich and slightly acidic, but it can easily adapt to dry soils with neutral or even slightly alkaline pH.
White Oak Tree Soil Preference
One type of soil that white oaks do not thrive in is that which is shallow, too compact, or overused.
White oak trees grow their very best in areas that have moist yet well-drained soils. However, like red oaks, they are adaptable to more adverse conditions thanks to their deep root system that allows them to tolerate drought as they mature.
This species thrives in areas with slightly acidic, deep, rich soil where the sunlight beams and the water is not too abundant.
How Tall Do Red and White Oak Trees Grow?
Red and white oak trees can get pretty dang tall! Below, we’ve outlined a bit of a scenario for you regarding the natural growth of these oak trees.
Red Oak Tree 10 Year Height
At 10 years, the red oak tree is starting to get taller, so much so that it has now outgrown the people who planted it.
After 10 years, red oak trees are still quite young, but the trunk is getting a bit wider, and the height begins to make it look like a substantial tree. Red oak trees will be 15 to 20 feet tall at 10 years after first being planted.
White Oak Tree 10 Year Height
The white oak begins its first portion of life a bit more gently; following the red oak closely, a white oak tree will be 10 to 15 feet tall after 10 years of growth. Still taller than any person, it has not quite matured to the thickness or texture of a mature tree.
Red Oak Tree 25 Year Height
After 25 years, the red oak tree doubles and triples its size and will grow 35 to 40 feet tall. After 25 years, red oak trees will stand above a typical 2-story home and tower over people, younger trees, and most suburban architecture.
White Oak Tree 25 Year Height
At 25 years after being planted, a white oak tree will reach about 30 to 40 feet tall. At this point in its lifespan, the white oak tree is now a close competitor in the height category to the red oak.
Red Oak Tree 50 Year Height
50 years after the red oak tree was planted, it is about the height of a 4-story building, reaching 55 to 65 feet tall.
White Oak Tree 50 Year Height
Did someone say a 4-story building after 50 years? Try a 5-story since the white oak is now generally taller for its age at 50 to 75 feet tall.
What is The Peak Height of an Oak Tree?
Overall, both red and oak trees have remarkable heights once fully grown. Here’s a peek at their full height below.
Red Oak Tree Peak Height
White oaks may have surpassed the red ones at the three 50 year mark, but let’s not forget that there are a ton of varieties of this species, and the northern red oak is one of them.
In many forests, red oak trees grow straight and tall, reaching a peak height of anywhere from 90 feet to an incredible 140 ft tall, while the trunk’s diameter reaches around 2 to 3 feet.
White Oak Tree Peak Height
The peak height of white oak can vary between the types of trees that fall under this title.
White oak trees often mature to something between 50 and 80 feet tall but are they are capable of growing upwards of 100 feet tall. 80 to 100 feet is a common range when we get to the ‘highest’ range of mature growth in this tree. In the individuals that grow to about 100 feet, the diameter of the trunk is going to be about 3 to 4 feet.
These get HUGE.
That’s a Wrap!
Now that we know a little more about the major types of oak trees, how they grow, where they thrive, and what they can be expected to become in a few centuries, it’s clear that there is a lot to know about oaks.
Red and white oaks are similar trees but, at the end of the day, there are many differences that shape their identities as individual species.
Keep in mind that white oaks tend to live a little longer, so if you’re worried about your descendants reaping the benefits of a specific tree you’ve planted, this might be the one for you.
Red oaks, however, grow a little faster at 18-24 inches per year and can thrive in any type of soil. Now that is a combination of speed and adaptability that we can support.
Really, the choice is yours. What shade of bark or height do you want? What is a better option for your environment? The questions may be endless, but we hope this provides you with a good reference of what tree might just be the one for you.
Thanks for reading! Now, go plant a tree!!
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LeBlanc, D. C., & Terrell, M. A. (2011). Comparison of growth–climate relationships between northern red oak and white oak across eastern North America. Canadian Journal of Forest Research, 41(10), 1936-1947.
Dougherty, P. M., Teskey, R. O., Phelps, J. E., & Hinckley, T. M. (1979). Net photosynthesis and early growth trends of a dominant white oak (Quercus alba L.). Plant Physiology, 64(6), 930-935.
Tardif, J. C., & Conciatori, F. (2006). Influence of climate on tree rings and vessel features in red oak and white oak growing near their northern distribution limit, southwestern Quebec, Canada. Canadian Journal of Forest Research, 36(9), 2317-2330.