by Martin (Mort) Schmidt for Simply Living
If I had to name a single favorite Ohio tree, it would be White Oak. White Oak is the stuff of wine
and whiskey barrels, it was the wood of choice for my favorite style, Mission furniture, and it’s
widespread enough to grace countless yards and forests. Quercus alba is THE White Oak of the
white-oak group. As discussed in the January 9, 2022 Community Update for Simply Living,
are the trees that produce acorns. Acorns from the white-oak group send out roots soon after
falling, while acorns from the red-oak group lie dormant until the following spring. In this article,
I’ll use the term “White Oak” for Quercus alba, and “white oak” for members of the white-oak
Oaks, like most plants, are classified primarily on the basis of fruits and flowers. But acorns are
typically present only in the fall, and oaks don’t produce them every year, so we mostly use leaves
for field identification. All oaks, or at least all Ohio oaks, have alternately-arranged, simple leaves.
That is, the leaves (and branches) are not directly across from one another, and each leaf is
attached to the permanent parts of the tree with its own stem, while compound leaves have
multiple leaflets sharing a single stem. White Oak leaves have long, slender lobes with rounded
tips. The leaf lobes and veins are pinnately arranged, meaning that the lobes and veins are
attached at multiple points along the leaf’s central axis. Palmately-veined leaves have several
primary veins joined together at the stem. White Oak leaf edges have no teeth. Most oaks,
including White Oaks, have persistent leaves, i.e., they tend to remain on the tree in winter.
Quercus alba grows to a height of 80 to 100 feet at maturity. Like many other of the white oaks,
White Oak bark appears as light gray, overlapping scales several inches long, and it’s somewhat
lighter in color than the bark of red oaks. White Oak is monoecious – it exhibits male and female
traits on the same tree. Flowers are inconspicuous. Acorns are approximately 1 inch long with a
cap covering approximately 1/4 of the acorn.
White Oak is one of Ohio’s most valuable hardwoods, and follows only Tuliptree (aka “yellow
poplar”, which is unrelated to poplars!) and Red Oak (Quercus rubra) in volume consumed as logs
(as opposed to pulpwood). White Oak has a Janka hardness of 1,360 lbf, and a density of 0.68
g/cc, compared to the median on my list of 83 Ohio trees, which equals a hardness of 1,050 lbf
and a density of 0.57 g/cc. White oak lumber is less susceptible to warpage than red oak. The white oaks also have the most prominent ray structure of any wood. Medullary rays are blade-like
structures that radiate outward from the center of the tree and distribute water and nutrients, and
they are clearly visible on boards sliced through the middle of the log. Mission furniture was
typically made from such lumber, which gives it the characteristic ribbon-like grain pattern. It’s
also possible to quarter a log lengthwise, and cut boards from each quarter at a 45°angle, so that
all of the boards show rays. Accordingly, oak and other boards with prominent ray patterns are
called “quarter-sawn”. Quarter-sawn lumber is beautiful and more stable than flat-sawn lumber,
but making it is more labor-intensive and wasteful, so of course it’s more costly.
The oaks bend readily and readily split parallel to grain, making oak ideal for long slender pieces,
including barrel staves. Red and white oak both have open grain, but white oak pores are filled
with a foam-like substance known as tyloses that makes the boards liquid-tight. Consequently, red
oak was used for slack cooperage, that is, barrels for solids such as nails and flour, while white oak
was, and is, used for tight cooperage, for liquids such as wine and whiskey. White oak and red oak
are separated at the lumberyard, but dealers generally aren’t concerned with which white oak or
which red oak they have. But at least for bourbon, only White Oak will suffice, and the premium
distillers might even insist on lumber from a specific area or environmental setting. White oak’s
resistance to fluid flow also makes it durable (rot resistant), so it’s superior to red oak for outdoor
use. And oak’s high density and heat value, and its readiness to split, make it the ideal firewood.
White oak acorns are less acidic than red oak acorns, making them a more popular food for rodents
and deer. Some white oak acorns are even eaten by people, but Quercus alba acorns are not as
sweet as some, and they’re usually soaked for a while to remove tannins. Perhaps white oaks send
down roots sooner than red oaks to make them less likely to be snatched up and eaten by wildlife.
The Native American Ethnobotany Database has a wealth of information on plant use, including
medicinal use. http://naeb.brit.org/ Here are some Native medicinal applications it cites for White
● Cherokee – Astringent bark chewed for mouth sores.
● Cherokee – Bark used as an antiseptic.
● Delaware – Infusion of bark used for severe coughs.
● Delaware – Infusion of bark used as a disinfectant.
● Delaware – Compound infusion of bark taken for ‘diseases peculiar to women.’
● Iroquois – Bark used for horses with distemper.
● Iroquois- Compound decoction used ‘when your woman goes off and won’t come back.’
● Ojibwa – Decoction of root bark and inner bark taken for diarrhea.
White Oaks are among the longest-lived trees, often surviving for several hundred years, and
occasionally longer. Its stately size, usefulness, and ancient age make White Oak (together with
several European species of white oak), the subject of much folklore and religious belief.
White oak is not the hardest, most shock-resistant, or most durable lumber, but it’s close on all
counts, and this combination of traits make it perhaps the single most useful wood, and perfectly
suited for ship building. Donald Culross Peatie’s A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and
Central North America describes how English Oak (Quercus robur, not to be confused with Q.
rubra, our Northern Red Oak), was the wood used by English shipbuilders in colonial times.
America’s White Oak looks very much like English Oak, and the wood is virtually identical in
working properties. The English had cleared most of their English Oak for shipbuilding and
initially planned to use American White Oak in its place. But, according to Peattie, “Scornfully
they maintained that it was weaker than their own as a structural timber, and that it was far more
subject to decay.“ But in fact, our oak was equally good. Peattie continues, “Well, if the mother
country would not take our White Oak, we would build our own ships of it”, which, of course, were
used to defeat the British. Peattie loved his trees and clearly took this slight quite personally.
Quercus alba is the state tree of Connecticut, Illinois, and Maryland. Connecticut takes particular
pride in one, the Charter Oak, which appears on the back of their state quarter. King Charles II
granted the Connecticut Colony an unusual degree of autonomy in 1662, but later, James II
decided to take back control. When the governor-general tried to collect Connecticut’s charter, the
candlelights suddenly went out and the charter was spirited away and hidden in the hollow trunk
of the Charter Oak, or so the story goes. The Charter Oak fell in 1856 and its wood was used in
the construction of chairs, desks, walking sticks, and other relics. Mark Twain got a tour of
Hartford by a citizen who proudly pointed out numerous furnishings supposedly made from the
Charter Oak. Twain concluded, “He took me around and showed me Charter Oak enough to build a
plank road from here to Great Salt Lake City”.
Leaves in Myth, Magic, and Medicine by Alice Thoms Vitale tells a Vermont fable in which an old
man sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a longer life. According to the agreement, his life
would be extended until a White Oak lost all its leaves. The old man knew that the tree would
retain some leaves year-round and he would have a long life. When the devil learned that he had
been tricked, he viciously chewed the leaves, which explains how they acquired their distinctive
But one must be cautious when reading ancient legends about oaks. According to Fred
Hageneder’s The Meaning of Trees, translators in the middle ages called every significant tree an
oak, just as every red fruit was an apple. Biblical “oaks” really should be thought of as simply
sacred trees. In any event, if any species is worthy of sacred status, it must be White Oak. I think
I’ll open a bottle of oaky red wine and toast Quercus alba.