The White Oak Tree
The White Oak (Quercus alba) is one of our most important, largest,
longest-lived and
A White Oak Tree
valuable timber trees in the United States. It is native to North America and is a member of the Beech family (Fagaceae), which includes a variety of both deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs. It is one of eight genus in Fagaceae and one of 800 species included in Quercus (Boyles). Members of the Fagaceae family are characterized by simple alternating leaves and incomplete flowers. The male flowers can have anywhere from four to forty stepals often grouped in catkins; the female flowers, often solitary or in small clusters, have three to six carpels all with inferior ovaries. Their seeds are cup-shaped nuts, known as acorns in the case of oaks. Other members of the Fagaceae family are chestnuts (Castanea), of which the American chestnut is almost extinct due to the chestnut blight of the early-mid 1900's, and also the American beech (Fagus), which is an excellent source of firewood and is even used in the brewing of Budweiser (Boyles).
A pair of acorns

Oaks, members of the genus Quercus, represent the most important hardwood species group both ecologically and economically in North America. As a group, oaks have wide ecological amplitude and can dominate highly varied environments. Oaks may be classified as competitors or stress tolerators, but are not ruderal when compared with other species. White oak grows throughout much of the eastern United States from southwest Maine to northern Florida, Alabama, and Georgia.It extends westward throughout southern Ontario and Quebec into central Michigan, northern Wisconsin, and southeastern Minnesota and south to southwestern Iowa, eastern Kansas, eastern Oklahoma, and eastern Texas. The best growing conditions for white oak occur on the western slope of the Appalachian Mountains and in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys ("Plant Profiles").

Distribution of the White Oak tree

Fire Ecology
Careful Bambi that lookz hawt!

White Oak Trees are unable to regenerate under the shade of a forest's canopy and therefore rely on periodic fires to perpetuate its existence. The tree itself is moderately resistant to fire and the underground regenerative parts, protected by overlying soil, usually survive to sprout new shoots from the roots or the stump. The suppression of fires throughout its range has inhibited the White Oak's ability to spread and sustain its territories, often being replaced by more shade-tolerant species like the sugar maple or the American basswood (Timenstein).

Ecological Value

Beyond diversifying North American forests, the White Oak plays a large role in the sustenance of a variety of animals. Acorns can be up to 6% protein and the organs of the plant can be over 34% fiber (Timenstein). Young shoots and even dried oak leaves provide food for white-tailed deer and rabbits, leaving the bark for beavers and the twigs for porcupines.
Catkins, groups of male flowers
Acorns provide choice nourishment for a number of species including but not limited to the white-footed mouse, fox squirrel, black bear, pine mouse, red squirrel, and cottontail rabbits. Bluejays, greater prairie chickens, mallards, and wild turkeys are just some of the birds that also benefit from the acorn harvest. Though their palatability is decreased, sprouted acorns still provide nourishment for deer, mice, and bobwhites (Houston). The magnitude of the fall acorn crop can, in some areas, affect black bears' reproductive success for the coming year (Timenstein).

Human Use
Native Americans utilized the White Oak with a variety of intent, from eating to medicine to tool making. The acorns can be boiled, dried, or roasted for a meal. The branches and trunk can, after three-four days of drying, be used to weave rims, handles and splints and to make barrels, beams/poles, and early "lacrosse sticks" for recreation.
Friends don't let friends play baseball.
The bark can be used to make brown, yellow, gold, and orange dyes. It can also be chewed or made into a medicinal tea to treat a variety of ailments/symptoms including diarrhea, asthma, fever, and skin/mouth/stomach sores ("Quercus alba"). Historically oaks have been used as important sources of lumber, fuel, food, and as tannins and dyes. In Europe, the oak was a symbol of strength, endurance, and good luck. On the winter solstice, people would burn an oak log for luck and prosperity in the new year, thus began the
Chairs in the Mission Style
tradition of the "Yule log" (Boyles).
The quality of Oak wood, White Oaks especially, makes it an excellent candidate for things like housing construction and furniture. White Oak accounted for the majority of the wood used to build "Old Iron Sides," or the USS Constitution, during the Civil War because of its strength and resistance to water damage (Boyles). Today, the U.S.'s lumber industry has been steadily growing since 2005, with exports to China, India, Vietnam, and South Korea on the rise. Exports to Europe aren't as strong across the board but European demand for White Oak has consistently grown (Baumgras). Because of the wood's strength and durability, White Oak was used for flooring in settlers' cabins and ships. White Oak was also used to make wagons as a component of the wheels and other high-stress parts. Its efficiency and strength enabled the movement of artillery during the Revolutionary and Civil wars while also supporting manifest destiny by mobilizing westward expansion. When the wood's exemplary steam-bending and tuning qualities were discovered White Oak became a staple in the furniture industry for its tendency to cut clean (Cassens). It was used to decorate railroad passenger cars and in the making/furnishing of new Mission Style furniture. White Oak is also one of the heaviest woods, and in so, has one of the highest potentials for shrinking during the drying process. However, once dried correctly, the wood rarely fluctuates and is highly resistant to decay. Because of its desirable color and grain it is used to make cabinets, molding, caskets, and hardwood floors, etc. Because of its strength and durability it was also used as mine supports, railroad planks, fence posts, trailer beds, and for construction, etc (Cassens). The White Oak is also the state tree of Maryland, Connecticut, and Illinois.

Whiskey Barrels
"Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish... Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more" --Proverbs 31, 6-7
Bourbon is the only whiskey that can truly be classified as American, and as such carries heavy cultural significance for many Americans. In Garren and Mardee Regan's The Book of Bourbon the authors describe an american sentiment towards Bourbon: "At certain times, you can actually hear a few Sinatra-like notes from a glass of bourbon, and occasionally, you just might catch the strains of both Joplins (Scott and Janis) or feel the rich, reverberating voice of Casal's cello playing a Beethoven sonota" (Bourbon: True American Spirit). This particular sentiment reflects the pride of being American while also raising something truly American above nationality to something more pure. Many of bourbon whiskey's distinct characteristics (smell, taste, color...) that set it apart can be attributed to the White Oak. Tyloses, outgrowths on parenchyma cells that dam up the vascular tissue of a plant, block the vascular vessels in White Oak making it impermeable to water and preservatives (Dharmadhikari). Because of this particular characteristic the White Oak is the prime wood for making whiskey barrels. It is not just the wood alone, but the interaction between the Oak and the maturing whiskey that happens as a result of the seasoning (aging) and heating (charring) treatments. Whiskey barrels made from Oak effect the maturing spirit in three broad and varying ways. As an additive, the wood adds to the taste and aroma of the spirit by providing desirable elements such as vanillin, wood sugars, and color. For example, Oak will change acetic acid into esthers which in turn react with water to produce more alcohol (Dharmadhikari). Oak tannins play an essential role in maturation by enabling oxidation and the creation of fragrance in the spirit. Tannins combine with oxygen and other compounds in the spirit to form acetals over time. But before the immature whiskey can be added to the barrel, the inside of the barrel must be charred (burnt). There are different levels of charring which will have a variety of affects on the numerous compounds and flavors the Oak will impart to the maturing spirit: more vanillins, lactones, spice characters, and tannins. Once a whiskey barrel is used, it is often reused to age whiskey for a number a years. Many distillers today will actually carve out the inside of their used barrels to reach fresh wood and continue the barrel's use (Bourbon: True American Spirit).

Works Cited

Baumgras, John E., and William G. Luppold. "Relative Price Trends for Hardwood Stumpage, Sawlogs, and Lumber in Ohio." 9th Central
Hardwood Forests Conference, 1991. Web. Nov. & dec. 2009. <>.

"Bourbon: True American Spirit." Bourbon Cowboy. Dartmouth College. Web. Nov. & dec. 2009. <>.

Broyles, Pat. "The Ethnobotany of Culturally Significant Plants."
Natural Resources Conservation Service. Ed. Leslie Glass. U.S.
Department of Agriculture, 10 Sept. 2008. Web. Nov. 2009.

Cassens, Danial L. "Hardwood Lumber and Veneer Series."
Purdue Extension. Purdue University
Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Sept. 2007. Web. Nov. 2009.

Dharmadhikari, Murli. "Wooden Cooperage." Iowa State University. Web. Nov. & dec. 2009. <>.

Houston, David R. 1971. "Noninfectious Diseases of Oaks."
Oak Symposium: Proceedings; 1971 August 16-20; Morgantown, WV. Upper
Darby, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station: 118-123.

"Plant Profiles."
Plants Database. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Web. 3 Dec. 2009.

"Quercus alba."
Native American Ethnobotany. University of Michigan. Web. Nov. & dec. 2009.

Tirmenstein, D. A. "Querus Alba: Fire Effects Information System."
Index of Species Information. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest
Service- Rocky Mountain Research Center Fire Sciences Labratory Rocky M. Web. Nov. & dec. 2009.