Vascular Plants of North Carolina
Account for Northern Red Oak - Quercus rubra   L.
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Section 6 » Order Fagales » Family Fagaceae
AuthorL.
DistributionThroughout the mountains and Piedmont; occurs in the northern and western Coastal Plain, east to Hertford, Beaufort, and Robeson counties; very rare to absent farther eastward.

This is a widespread Northern species, reaching north well into eastern Canada and south to southern AL and LA.
AbundanceCommon and widespread in the mountains and Piedmont, being more numerous in the mountains and foothills than in the eastern Piedmont, where it can be a bit local or just fairly common. Uncommon and local in the northern Coastal Plain, but very rare elsewhere. Essentially absent in the Sandhills.
HabitatThe species is characteristic and dominant on rich to somewhat mesic slopes, often with American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), across the Piedmont and lower mountains. It is a key species in Mesic Mixed Hardwood Forest natural community. At middle and higher elevations it can be dominant in more mesic slopes and even ridgetops, and is not simply found in coves or lower slopes. In the Coastal Plain it is found only on the richer forested soils. Despite it favoring moist or rich soil, it is not a species of true circumneutral soil.
PhenologyFlowers in April and May; fruits from August to October of the second year.
IdentificationThis familiar tree is deciduous and grows to a medium to fairly large size, usually 80-90’ tall. It has fairly tight gray to dark gray bark with narrow vertical plates, and with the ridges appearing to have “shiny stripes down the center”, according to Wikipedia. The leaves are fairly large, generally oblong to obovate, about 6” long and 4” wide. They have relatively shallow sinuses that are usually somewhat triangular, leaving about 7 triangular to square-ish lobes. There are a number of somewhat similar oak leaves – Black (Q. velutina), Scarlet (Q. coccinea), Cherrybark (Q. pagoda), and Shumard (Q. shumardii) – but these have sinuses more deeply cut toward the midrib or are more triangular, leaving the leaves narrower or with more obvious and distinct lobes. As with many other oaks, you should carefully check a number of leaves on the tree (or ground), especially on higher limbs, to be certain that you have this common species. The leaves are rather thin in texture and not overly shiny above; Black Oak can be similar but the leaves tend to be somewhat thick and shiny above.
Taxonomic CommentsHistorically it was named as Quercus borealis. In more recent years, the species has been split into several varieties. In NC, the form growing in the middle and higher elevations, and less tied to rich soils, is Q. rubra var. ambigua. The other form, of the lower elevations, is the nominate Q. rubra var. rubra.
Other Common Name(s)Red Oak. People who use Red Oak for this species generally assign a different name to Q. falcata than Southern Red Oak, such as Spanish Oak. Weakley (2018) assigns Gray Oak to the higher mountain taxon, leaving Red Oak for the downstate taxon. However, that leaves unknown what the full species name is to be called.
State RankS5
Global RankG5
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