White Oak

Quercus alba L. – Fagaceae – oak, beech & chestnut family

White oak is not a common street tree in Albion, but there are some very large specimens of these long- lived trees on our streets.  There is an especially large individual on the NE corner of E Broadwell Street and Maple Street, which is depicted in the first photo.   A couple of blocks S of this tree, on the W side of Maple, there are some other magnificent specimens.  There also are some really large individuals on W Erie Street near Oak Meadows, no doubt the namesakes for this neighborhood.

Oaks produce distinctive fruits called acorns, which botanically are each a nut with a “cap” produced by a fused cluster of modified leaves called bracts.  There are two major groups of oaks in the eastern U.S.  Members of the red/black oak group have sharp-pointed leaf lobes that often end in a small, cylindrical projections.  These species, which in our area include the red oak, black oak, and pin oak, have acorns that are slower to mature and that usually have bracts that are flattened, making the cap relatively smooth.  Members of the white oak group have rounded leaf lobes and and acorns with roughened caps due to their corky bracts.  In addition to white oak, bur oak and swamp white oak are common species in this group found in our area.  Victory Park is a great place to see large trees of all of these species!

Like other oaks in our area, white oak typically flowers in late April and early May, with both “male” and “female” flowers found on the same tree.  The “male” flowers are in dangling narrow clusters called catkins, which fall off and clog many a eavestrough.  The “female” flowers, which are located in small clusters in the upper angles between the  leaves and twigs, persist to form the acorns.  They are surrounded by numerous tiny bracts that become the “cap.”

The lumber is economically valuable.  Classic mission-style furniture is made from quarter-sawn white oak.  Like our our other oaks, the acorns are beloved by Albion’s squirrels and blue-jays.  Because the acorns have relatively low tannic acid content, Native Americans traditionally washed them and ground them into flour.