Northern red oak

Oaks are often thought of as a quintessentially English tree. But of over 450 species of oak, only two are native to Britain. This red oak is North American and is famed for its leaves' spectacular red colour in autumn.

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Northern red oak

Northern red oak (Quercus rubra)

Quick facts

  • Scientific name: Quercus rubra
  • Family: Fagaceae
  • Place of origin: north-eastern America. Often called the northern red oak to distinguish it from the southern red oak (Quercus falcata) or Spanish oak.
  • Conservation status: Secure
  • Date planted: late 1800s
  • Height: 27 m

About Kew's northern red oak trees

This tree gives a spectacular show in autumn, with its leaves turning a beautiful shade of red. Beneath the surface the inner bark is also reddish brown, although it is for its autumn leaves and not for this reason that the tree was named the red oak. You'll see many more planted towards the western edge of the gardens on the riverside walk, with a few key specimens at the northern end of the gardens.

Take a closer look

  • An obvious difference between the English oak and the Northern red oak is leaf shape. Northern red oak leaves are lobed, but these lobes are pointed rather than rounded. The leaves also vary in size and are often up to twice as big as those of the English oak.
  • Northern red oak is easily recognised by its bark, with ridges that have shiny stripes down the centre. Other oaks have similar 'stripes' high on the tree, but the northern red oak is the only tree with striping all the way down the trunk.

Tree biology

Like many oaks, this tree grows fast, putting on extension growth (shoots) at a rate of up to 2.5 m in a single year. The flowers emerge in late spring. The male flowers take the form of slender yellow catkins while the female flowers are so tiny they are barely noticeable. Unlike our native oaks, the acorns of the northern red oak take two years to ripen. In their first year they are small and partially formed. They elongate into dark red-brown acorns in their second year.

Cultivation and uses

Northern red oak wood is strong, making this species one of the most important timber trees in its native North America. Related oaks (like pin oak or southern red oak) are also cut and marketed as northern red oak, although their wood is not always of as high a quality.

The wood is used for flooring, veneers and furniture. But its strength doesn't necessarily mean solidity. Red oak wood grain is so open that smoke can be blown right through a flat-sawn board from end to end, down the grain.

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