Red oak is a group of several species belonging to the genus Quercus (Latin for “fine tree”). This genus includes all of the white and red oaks of North America. Red oaks generally have leaves whose apices and lobes are bristly tipped as opposed to smooth tips on the apices and lobes of the white oak group.
The fruit of all oaks is an acorn. Although red oak acorns are an important part of the diet of many birds and animals, high tannic acid content makes them unpalatable to humans. Red oak acorns have been known to cause health problems in cattle if they become a substantial part of their diet.
The red oak group consists of many different species.The most important commercial upland species are Northern red oak (Quercus rubra), after which the group is named; Southern red oak (Q. falcata) and Shumard oak (Q. shumardii).The most important lowland species are the willow oak (Q. phellos) and water oak (Q. nigra). Of these species, the most common red oak lumber consists mainly of Northern and Southern red oak.Wood of the highest quality is sawn from Shumard oak; unfortunately, it is usually mixed rather indiscriminately with the other red oaks. The lowest quality red oak lumber sawn from these five species is from water oak.
Red oak wood is manufactured for many varieties of uses. Its highest historical use was in flooring; however, it is also widely used in cabinetry either as solid wood or veneer, paneling and furniture. Red oak is also widely used for pallets. With the recent downturn in the economy, cheap imported materials and a move from solid wood to composite materials for flooring, much of America’s red oak is now being sawn into railroad crossties, posts, beams and other construction materials.
Red oaks generally grow up to 80 to 100 feet tall with diameters that can exceed three feet. A couple of specimens of Northern red oak, however, have been recorded exceeding 20′ in diameter with heights exceeding 130 feet. Most of the important red oak species are rather fast growing compared to the white oaks, maple, walnut and black cherry.The fastest growing red oaks seem to be along the Mississippi River drainage, where 120-year-old Nuttall oaks (Q. nutalli) in the Deep South have grown to as much as 48″ in diameter.