The Oaks of the genus Quercus account for more tree biomass than any other species in North America and Mexico (1). Black Oak is a native deciduous tree growing 50 to 80 feet tall with an irregular open spreading crown. It is a member of the Quercus Sect. Lobatae - which contains all species of the Red Oak Group.
The largest known (2019) Black Oak in the United States is found in Hartford CT, measuring 78 feet high, 89 foot crown spread and 347 inches in circumference scoring 447 points.
The bark is gray and smooth on young trunks, becoming blackish, thick and rough and deeply furrowed into ridges that have horizontal breaks. The inner bark is yellow to orange and very bitter. See notes below the photo section.
Twigs are stout and grayish green to reddish-brown in color, with many small lenticels, usually smooth but new twigs may have surface hair. The buds are large, buff in color, with fuzzy hair, and jut out at angles from the twig. Terminal buds have 5 angles in cross-section.
The leaves are elliptical, long stalked, usually with 5 to 9 (5 usually) lobes that are either shallow or deep and narrow. Lobes end with a few bristle-tipped teeth (awns) of which there can be 15 to 50. The leaf base can be obtuse to truncate in shape but does not taper down onto the leaf stalk; the base is usually a bit unequal from side to side. The upper surface is shiny dark green and the underside a pale green with some brown hairs along the main veins. The secondary veins appear raised on both surfaces. Fall color is brown to dull red. Like all Oaks with lobed leaves, the leaves are quite variable in shape and size.
Flowers: The tree is monoecious, that is with separate male and female flowers. Male flowers occur in yellow-green 2 to 4 inch hanging catkins from the leaf axils of last year's growth. Each male flower has six stamens (can very from 2 to 12), which have long spreading white filaments when the flower fully opens. The female flowers are more reddish-green and appear as small slender spikes in the axils of new growth. They have 3 (to 6) carpels and styles that are slender and short. There are no petals; both sexes have the sepals are fused together. Both develop as the leaves open.
Fruit: Female flowers mature to an ovoid acorn, 1/2 to 3/4 inch long, that has a cup that varies from cup shaped to turbanate (narrowed at the base). The cup covers 1/3 to 1/2 the acorn and has a fringed border of loose (particularly on the cap edges) rust-brown scales. The margin of the cup (where the acorn is exposed) are tapered but not rolled inward. The outer surface of the cup can have very fine hair. Acorns are biennial - taking 2 years to mature as do most species in Quercus Sect. Lobatae, which contains the Red Oak Group.
Habitat: Black Oak grows from a deep taproot and spreading lateral roots. Its preferred sites are dry upland slopes or sandy lowlands. Full sun is required for a good shape. Black Oak will hybridize with Pin Oak, Northern Pin Oak and Northern Red Oak. Oaks should be pruned during the winter months, from October to March, to avoid open wounds where the Oak Wilt fungus can enter.
Names: The genus name, Quercus, is the Latin word for Oak. The species velutina, means 'velvety'. The author name for the plant classification of 1785 - ‘Lam.’ is for Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) French naturalist and biologist, an early proponent of evolution who among other things, published the 3 volume Flore francaise.
There are older synonyms for the botanical name which are now obsolete: Q. tinctoria and Q. missouriensis to name two.
Comparisons: The Northern Pin Oak, Quercus ellipsoidalis, is a similar Oak in appearance with sharp pointed lobes on the leaves but the lobe cuts are broader. However, the acorn does not have scales on the cup that are as loose as those of Black Oak nor do they have as much fine hair. Twig buds of Black Oak are also larger and more fuzzy. The only oaks in our northern region with similar characteristics are the Northern Red Oak, Pin Oak and Scarlet Oak.. In the southern United States however, the Turkey Oak, Quercus laevis is found. It has a leaf base that tapers down more narrowly to the stalk and the margins of the acorn cup are noticeably rolled inward. Check the Oak Leaf Comparison Sheet.
Above: A mature Black Oak tree. Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An Illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Below: The acorn cup varies from cup shaped to turbanate. Mature acorns have a cup covering 1/3 to 1/2 the acorn. Scales are loose at the border (margin) of the cup but taper upward and are not rolled inward. Acorns mature in the second year.
Below: The female flowers are on short spurs on new growth (1st photo). Terminal buds have 5 angles in cross-section (2nd photo).
Below: The male catkins form with the leaves (1st and 2nd photo) from buds at the end of the prior years twig. 3rd photo - The only hair on the leaf will be tufts in the underside vein joints.
Below: Leaf shapes vary but are elliptical overall with a long stalk and the base lobes are usually slightly unequal. The underside (3rd photo) is much paler color.
Below: Bark becomes blackish, thick and rough and deeply furrowed into ridges that have horizontal breaks. Newer twigs (2nd photo) are grayish green to reddish-brown in color, with many small lenticels, usually smooth. The buds are large, buff in color, with fuzzy hair, and jut out at angles from the twig. Older twigs (3rd photo) are gray and still show the lenticels.
Below: Fall leaf color has some red tinges to begin, then turning dull red or brown.
Notes: (1) Ascent of the Oaks, Hipp, Manos, Cavender-Bares, SA, Aug 2020.
Black Oak first arrived in the Wildflower Garden on Oct. 17, 1913 when Eloise Butler planted some acorns she had obtained from the Arnold Arboretum. In 1917 she planted 13 acorns collected in Providence Rhode Island. The tree was not present by the time of Martha Crone's 1951 plant census. Gardener Cary George replanted the species in 1994 but it was not listed on the 2009 census. In Minnesota the tree is found in the wild only in Goodhue, Houston, Wabasha and Winona Counties - this SE corner of Minnesota is the northwestern extent of its range in North America. It is found in the eastern half of the U.S. and in Ontario in Canada.
There are six species of Oak generally found in parts of Minnesota that are not considered hybrids or rarities that have not been collected in the last 100 years. These are: White Oak, Q. alba; Swamp White Oak, Q. bicolor; Northern Pin Oak, Q. ellipsoidalis; Bur Oak, Q. macrocarpa; Northern Red Oak, Q. rubra. and Black Oak, Q. velutina. Chinkapin Oak (Chestnut Oak, or Yellow Oak), Q. muhlenbergii was native but is historical only now, last collected in 1899; Scarlet Oak, Quercus coccinea, can also grow here as can Pin Oak, Quercus palustris, but neither are native.
Wood and its Uses: The bark of Black Oak is a rich source of tannins for the leather industry. The yellow inner bark also supplied a yellow dye (called Quercitron) that was obtained by drying the peeled bark, pounding it to a powder and sifting out the yellow dye material.
It is difficult visually to separate the species of the Red Oak group when you are looking a piece of lumber. As a general characteristic the Red Oak group has wood with the tallest rays less than 1 inch and the latewood pores are few and distinct. Whereas, in the White Oaks the tallest of the largest rays are greater than 1-1/4 inches and the latewood has numerous small pores that grade into invisibility. A small hand lens is necessary to do this. In terms of hardness, Black Oak is like Red Oak - 1280 on the Janka Wood Hardness Scale. White Oak is 1320 and Hickory, North America's hardest wood, is 1820. World-wide Lignum vitae is the hardest at 4500.
Francois Michaux wrote in his 3 volume North American Sylva of 1817-1819 (Ref. #26c): The Black Oak is one of the loftiest trees in North America, being 80 or 90 feet high and 4 or 5 feet in diameter. The trunk is covered with a deeply furrowed bark of middling thickness, and always of a black or very deep brown colour…Further south, this character is not sufficient to distinguish it from the Spanish Oak, the bark of which is of the same colour and recourse must be made to the buds, which on the Black Oak, are longer, more acuminate, and more scaly. All doubt may be removed by chewing a bit of the cellular tissue of each; that of the Black Oak is very bitter and gives a yellow tinge to the saliva, which is not the case with the other.
The wood is reddish and coarse-grained….At Philadelphia it is employed for want of White Oak in building; and the farmers of the Northern States, with false economy, substitute it in the place of the White Oak for fences.
The bark is extensively used in tanning, as it is easily procured and is rich in tannin. The only inconvenience which attends it is imparting a yellow colour to the leather, which must be discharged by a particular process, to prevent its staining the stockings; it is a great error to assert that this color augments its value. From the cellular tissue of the Black Oak is obtained the quercitron of which great use is made in dying wool, silk and paper-hangings.
But its stature, the rapidity of its growth, and above all, the value of its bark in dyeing, recommend it powerfully to the notice of European foresters.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"