Using Oak Trees for Late Fall Foliage

Northern red oak tree
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Oak trees generally acquire their fall foliage colors later in autumn than maple trees do. As such, they have a tough act to follow. But after maple trees are bare, oak trees can still carry on the show of fall colors as the landscape transitions from late autumn to winter.

Pin Oak Trees

Pin oak trees (Quercus palustris) grow in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8, and their foliage can turn a deep red in the fall if conditions are right. They often reach a height of 70 feet with an almost equal spread. Their leaves are about 5 inches long with five lobes, and they sport a deep glossy green color during the rest of the growing season. Pin oaks easily grow in a spot that gets lots of sun and has average soil with an acidic soil pH. They're even tolerant of wet soil. The trees get their name from the sharp stubs, or "pins," left on the trunk after the lower branches die and break off.

White Oak Trees

Growing in hardiness zones 3 to 9, white oak trees (Quercus alba) get their common name from the relatively light color of their bark. Under the right conditions, their fall foliage can be a reddish-brown color that is especially rich on young trees. Their leaves are between 4 and 9 inches long with seven to nine lobes. They start a pinkish color in the spring and transition to dark green. The trees can reach 80 feet tall with a similar spread. They like full sun and acidic soil. However, unlike pin oaks, they don't like wet soil but rather are fairly drought-tolerant trees that need good soil drainage. White oaks are slow growers but will mature into exceptional shade trees.

Northern Red Oak Trees

Northern red oak trees (Quercus rubra) are grown in hardiness zones 4 to 8 and often reach 75 feet tall with a similar spread. They live up to their common name when conditions are right, bearing dark red fall foliage (or reddish-brown under less-than-ideal growing conditions). Their sun and soil requirements are similar to white oak trees, but northern red oaks are the faster grower between the two. For the rest of the growing season, they feature medium green leaves that are 5 to 9 inches long with between seven and 11 pointed lobes. The trees are generally hardy and live for several decades. 

Sawtooth Oak Trees

The leaves of sawtooth oak trees (Quercus acutissima) turn yellow in the autumn and can eventually become golden brown. For the rest of the growing season, the 7-inch-long leaves are a dark glossy green. At maturity, sawtooth oaks reach between 40 and 60 feet tall on average with a similar spread. They are fast-growing trees that are hardy to zones 6 to 9, which is ideal for those who want a shade tree that won't take forever to start casting cooling shadows in the yard. Sawtooth oaks prefer a spot that gets a lot of sun, and they can tolerate some drought as well as heat and humidity. They grow best in rich, well-draining soil.

Bur Oaks Trees

Bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) grow in hardiness zones 3 to 8 and feature golden to yellow-brown foliage in the fall. Their leaves are 6 to 12 inches long with between five and nine rounded lobes, and they display a dark green color for the rest of the growing season. Bur oaks are slow growers, reaching between 60 and 80 feet tall on average with a similar spread. Overall they are low-maintenance and long-lived shade trees. They can tolerate many soil conditions, including dry soil and clay soil, though they prefer a well-draining loam. And they are even tolerant of pollution.