Red oak trees and other types of Quercus acquire their fall foliage colors later in autumn than do maple trees. As such, they have a tough act to follow. But those of us who dread the transition from fall to winter are ever so appreciative of the late autumn color that the oaks furnish.
Northern red oak trees and pin oaks make what is perhaps the most valiant attempt to carry on the show started by the maples. The fall foliage performance of Quercus alba is often more understated, but the tree is such an exceptional specimen on other counts that it warrants inclusion in this article. I discuss all three here, plus other kinds of Quercus that have characteristics that make them valued for very specific landscaping needs.
While red oak trees and pin oaks (see below) generally do not quite match the inimitable maples as fall foliage specimens, they do complement the maples, precisely because oak foliage morphs into its autumn colors at a later date than maple leaves. Long after maple trees are bare, the oaks are still celebrating the glory of fall. If you have the room, plant both a maple and an oak. The maple will give you spectacular color and give it early; the oak will extend the fall foliage season on your landscape.
Fall Foliage of Pin Oak Trees
Pin oak trees (Quercus palustris) are grown in zones 4-8 and their foliage can turn a deep red in fall if conditions are right. They often reach a height of 70’ with an almost equal spread. Plant in a sunny area. This flood-tolerant specimen likes a moist soil with an acidic pH. The name "pin" derives from the sharp stubs left over on the trunk after the lower branches die. The crown is pyramidal.
The Outstanding Qualities of White Oak Trees
White oak trees (Quercus alba) are so-called due to the relatively light color of their bark. Under the right conditions, the fall foliage of these trees can be reddish-brown, especially for young trees. Don't count on great autumn color from older trees, but this stately specimen more than makes up for it with other outstanding qualities.
White oaks often reach 80’ tall, with rounded crowns 80’ in width. Plant in full sun and in acidic soil, as with pin oak trees. Unlike pin oaks, however, white oak trees do not like wet soils. Rather, they are relatively drought-tolerant trees and need good drainage. Give this large tree plenty of space in which to grow, as well as plenty of time (it is a slow grower). Grow them in zone 3-9.
White oak trees mature into exceptional shade trees. Their strong, straight trunks will grace any lawn with a majesty unmatched by most trees. When given sufficient room to grow, their crowns will dominate a lawn and provide an interesting branching pattern. Their "white" bark is attractive, and they bear elegant acorns.
Fall Foliage of Northern Red Oak Trees
Northern red oak trees (Quercus rubra) are grown in zones 4-8 and often reach 75’ tall with a similar spread. They live up to their name when conditions are right, bearing dark red fall foliage (reddish-brown under less than ideal conditions). Their sun and soil requirements are similar to white oak trees (see above), but northern red oaks are the faster growers between these two types of Quercus.
Along with pin oaks, I value red oak trees for their fall foliage on two levels. Under the right conditions, the quality of the red color of the leaves is not far inferior to that on Acer rubrum, the standard by which all other specimens are judged. Their fall foliage comes later than that on the maples. For the impatient, this may seem a bad thing. But it's a boon to those who desire to see the season for autumn color extended for as long as possible.
The Moderately Good Fall Foliage of Sawtooth Oak Trees
Sawtooth oak tree (Quercus acutissima) turn yellow in the autumn and may, eventually, become golden brown. At maturity, it reaches 40'-50', with a spread somewhat greater than that. It's also a fast-grower, an important trait for people in a hurry. These two attributes (i.e., canopy width and quick maturation) make it a great candidate to fill a particular landscaping need: namely, the need for a shade tree that won't take forever to start casting cooling shadows in the yard. Sawtooth oak trees like full sun but aren't fussy about soil. They are grown in zones 5-9.
The Pollution-Tolerant Bur Oaks Trees
Finally, bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) are another type of Quercus that serves well in a particular capacity, due to their possession of a specific quality. In this case, the quality is pollution-tolerance, and the landscaping need it can fill, consequently, is the need for a street tree. This one's a slow grower, but it is drought-resistant, long-lived and cold-hardy as far north as zone 2.