Oak trees are some of the most beloved trees in the world. Known for size and longevity—with symbolic references for wisdom, honor, and strength—the oak tree is a beautiful addition to any landscape. With approximately 600 different varieties of the species, it can seem like a large undertaking to choose the best oak trees for your yard.
At Mr. Tree, we’re happy to help you quickly narrow down your search because only about 90 of these species occur in the United States, and like all plant life, some do better in different weather conditions. Since Oregon’s plant hardiness zone ranges from 4b to 9b, we will focus on the five best oak trees for your yard within our hardiness zone.
Oaks are monoecious trees. This means they contain both male and female flowers on the same tree. Oak varieties also vary between deciduous and evergreen breeds. Deciduous trees shed their leaves annually, usually in autumn, and grow well in partial sun and shade. Evergreens, on the other hand—as their name suggests—maintain green leaves year-round and thrive in full-sun locations.
Oak trees are generally divided into two main groups: white oak and red oak trees. White oaks are characterized by having leaves that are “lacking bristles on the lobes or leaf apex,” according to the Forest Health Technology Enterprise Team. Their acorns also mature annually. Red oak leaves, in comparison, do have bristles at their tips and edges, and their acorns mature biennially, or every two years.
With so many varietals, oaks can vary significantly in height, width, growing pace, and life span. The smallest of the oak trees, the Japanese evergreen oak, only reaches a height of about 30 feet, while the tallest species, the white oak (not to be confused with the white oak grouping), reaches heights of over 100 feet. Currently, the tallest known white oak tree is 144 feet. Oak tree spreads, or the width of their foliage, can range from 20 feet to 160 feet. Also, some species grow only eight inches a year, like the bur oak, and others up to four feet per year, like the Nuttall oak.
As for age, the laurel oak only lives for approximately 50 years, although that’s more than half the average human life span of 79 years. One of the oldest oak trees on record, an angel oak in South Carolina, currently has a record life span cited at 1,500 years!
So, of all these differences in oak species, which ones are the best oak trees for you? Here are five varieties to choose from.
The Nuttall oak tree is known for being well adapted for general landscape use. It’s the fastest-growing oak tree. As it grows at an average rate of two to four feet per year, you can have a nice-sized tree in your space within a decade. The Nuttall oak also has a nice branching structure, tolerates both wet soil and moderate drought, and doesn’t have many issues with pests or disease. Its beautiful fall colors change from yellow through orange and finish at red.
This oak does well in hardiness zones 6 through 9 and matures at a height of 40 to 60 feet, with a spread of 35 to 50 feet. It also takes well to being transplanted, which means if you purchase one that’s already a few years old, it won’t take as long for you to have a large, beautiful oak tree focal point in your yard.
Introduced to the US in 1878, the Japanese evergreen oak is native to Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and some parts of China. This oak tree does better in some warmer temperatures, mainly found in hardiness zones 7 through 11. It has a slower growth rate but will mature around 30 to 40 feet tall, with a dense spread about 20-feet wide. Despite its small size, the Japanese evergreen oak is a nice option for shade and screening due to is shrub-like growth habits.
The northern red oak may be named after its red fall leaves, or perhaps it references the reddish-brown color of the wood. Either way, this oak species would be a beautiful addition to your home. As another species with a fast growth rate, the northern red oak can reach up to 20 feet in height in as little as 10 years. Maturing at between 75 and 100 feet tall with a life span of up to 500 years, this oak tree would be a long-term investment in any landscape. It’s also versatile and lends itself well to urban settings.
Known for its well-shaped canopy, the pin oak is similar to the northern red oak in height, but with a spread of 25 to 40 feet. The pin oak’s upper branches grow upward, while the center branches grow out almost horizontally and the lower branches spread downward, giving its foliage a shape somewhere between a cone and an egg. This oak is a beautiful shade tree and turns lovely shades of orange, copper, and red in the fall.
The water oak, as you may have deduced, likes things wet and will do well near ponds or streams. It thrives in hardiness zones 6 through 9. The water oak can reach heights of 50 to 80 feet, but know that its life span is about the same, ranging from 60 to 80 years. On the upside, it will grow steadily at about two feet per year and is a hardy addition to your landscape.
Oak trees are always a great addition to any yard. With so many varieties, there’s an oak out there for everyone. If you have questions or need more information on the best oak trees for you and your yard, you can always reach out to consult with any of our certified arborists.