Red or White?

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Who doesn't love a nice oak tree? One cannot overstate their importance both ecologically and culturally. Although picking an oak tree out of a lineup is something many of us are capable of doing, identifying oaks to species can be a bit more challenging. This is further complicated by the fact that oaks often hybridize. Still, it is likely you have come across some useful tips and tricks for narrowing down your oak choices. One such trick is distinguishing between the red oaks and the white oaks. If you're anything like me, this is something you took for granted for a while. Is there anything biologically or ecologically meaningful to such a split?

In short, yes. However, a true appreciation of these groups requires a deeper look. To start with, oaks are members of the genus Quercus, which belongs in the family Fagaceae. Globally there are approximately 400 species of oak and each falls into one of three categories - the red oaks (section Lobatae), the white oaks (section Quercus), and the so-called "intermediate" oaks (section Protoblanus). For the sake of this article, I will only be focusing on the red and white groups as that is where most of the oak species reside. The intermediate oak group is made up of 5 species, all of which are native to the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.

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As is common with oak identification, reliable techniques for distinguishing between the two groups can be tricky. Probably the most reliable feature is located on the inner surface of the acorn cap. In white oaks, it is hairless or nearly so, whereas in red oaks, it is covered in tiny hairs. Another useful acorn feature is the length of time it takes them to germinate. White oak acorns mature in one season and germinate in the fall. As such, they contain lower levels of tannins. Red oak acorns (as well as those of the intermediate group) generally take at least two seasons to mature and therefore germinate the following spring. Because of this, red oak acorns have a much higher tannin content. For more information on why this is the case, read this article.

Tyloses in white oak xylem.

Less apparent than acorns is the difference in the wood of red and white oaks. The wood of white oaks contains tiny structures in their xylem tissues called tyloses. These are absent from the wood of red oaks. The function of tyloses are quite interesting. During extreme drought or in the case of some sort of infection, they cut off regions of the xylem to stop the spread of an embolism or whatever may be infecting the tree. As such, white oaks tend to be more rot and drought resistant. Fun fact, tyloses are the main reason why white oak is used for making wine and bourbon barrels as it keeps them from leaking their contents.

More apparent to the casual observer, however, is leaf shape. In general, the white oaks produce leaves that have rounded lobes, whereas the red oaks generally exhibit pointed lobes with a tiny bristle on their tips. At this point you may be asking where an unlobed species like shingle oak (Quercus imbricaria) fits in. Look at the tip of its leaf and you will see a small bristle, which means its a member of the red oak group. Similarly, the buds of these two groups often differ in their overall shape. White oak buds tend to be smaller and often have blunted tips whereas the buds of red oaks are generally larger and often pointed.

Tricky leaves of the shingle oak ( Quercus imbricaria ). Note the bristle tip!

Tricky leaves of the shingle oak (Quercus imbricaria). Note the bristle tip!

Despite this broad generalizations, exceptions abound. This is further complicated by the fact that many species will readily hybridize. Quercus is, after all, a massive genus. Regardless, oaks are wonderful species chock full of ecological and cultural value. Still, oak appreciation is something we all need more of in our lives. I encourage you to try some oak identification of your own. Get outside and see if you can use any of these tricks to help you identify some of the oaks in your neighborhood.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

Tropical Oaks - Lessons in Biogeography from a Giant Acorn

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Seeing the nut of Quercus insignis in person for the first time was a peculiar experience. I didn't know acorns came that big! What was even stranger was encountering this species in the tropics. I thought that in leaving my temperate home behind, I had left trees such as oaks behind as well. Thus, picking up this gigantic acorn was a challenge to my ignorance of tropical forest diversity. What it did for me was ignite a fury of questions regarding the biogeography of the genus Quercus.

Quercus insignis is native from Mexico to Panama. It is a member of the white oak grouping and, despite having one of the largest acorns of any oak species, relatively little is known about this species. What we do know is that it is in trouble. It is considered critically endangered in Mexico and near threatened in Guatemala and Panama with a remaining stronghold in Nicaragua. Habitat loss and changing environmental conditions seem to be at the core of its disappearance.

One big question was looming over me. What was an oak doing this far south? Call it a northern bias but I have always associated oaks with more temperate climes. I needed to get over this. My investigation lead me to some very interesting work done on the family to which oaks belong - Fagaceae. Based on some incredible paleontological and genetic detective work, we now know that Fagaceae originated in Asia. The first fossil evidence of a member of this family dates back some 100 million years, during the early part of the Cretaceous.

At this time, the continents of Asia, Europe, and North America were still connected. Some 60 million years ago, the genus Quercus diverged from Castanea. They were also starting to radiate across the Northern Hemisphere. The first fossil evidence of oaks in North America comes from Paleogene deposits dated to 55 to 50 million years before present. This is when the oaks really started to hit their stride.

Between 22 and 3 million years ago the genus Quercus underwent numerous speciation events. The new terrain of North America must have presented countless opportunities for oaks because they quickly became the most specious genus of all the Fagaceae. This radiation was particularly fruitful in what would become the U.S. and Mexico. Of the roughly 220 species that exist in this region today, 160 occur in Mexico, and of those, 90 species are endemic.

This brings us to the tropics. Evergreen and semi-evergreen oaks have done quite well in this region. However, their astounding diversity quickly drops once you hit the isthmus of Panama. South America is home to only one species of oak. What happened that limited the oaks reign south of the equator?

To put it simply, geology happened. For much of the Earth's history, North and South America shared no connection. Though the exact time frame is debated, tectonic forces joined the two continents some 4.5 million years ago. The Great American Interchange had begun. The two continents were able to freely exchange flora and fauna like never before. The migrations are thought to have been a bit lopsided. Tropical flora and fauna did not do as well farther north but temperate flora and fauna seemed to find warmer climes more favorable. As such, South America gained disproportionately more biodiversity as a result.

This pattern did not hold true for everything though. For the oaks, only one species (Quercus humboldtii) made it through. As such, the genus remains a dominant fixture of the Northern Hemisphere. Sadly, much of this diversity is at serious risk of being lost forever. Like the magnificent Quercus insignis, many of the world's oaks are on the decline. Disease, habitat loss, and countless other issues plague this genus. A 100 million year old journey is quickly being undone in less than two centuries. The hand of man is time and again proving to be a force unrivaled in the biological world.

Leaf Credit: http://www.oaknames.org/

Further Reading:
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378112713006580