How to Grow Scarlet Oak Trees

Autumn sunlit leaves of the Quercus scarlet oak. Backlit branches.

 Kathy Collins/ Getty Images

In This Article

If you want to know the most magnificent colors of fall, look at the foliage of the Scarlet Oak. The tree puts on an autumn show from late fall through early winter when most other trees have lost their leaves.

This incredible specimen is an example of color theory in garden design, with its blazing scarlet that is often set against the bright blue chilly fall skies, or a stark white field of early snow.  

The scarlet oak’s scientific name is Quercus coccinea, Quercus meaning oak and coccinea being the word for scarlet in Latin. This tree, besides being a wonderful home and food source for countless forms of wildlife, and an excellent provider of shade, is defined by the amazing color display it puts on every year.

The scarlet oak belongs to a group of oaks called the red oak group which is made up of some other beautiful trees that are often mistaken for the scarlet oak but can never match its fall beauty. Do not mistake the Black Oak, Pin Oak, Northern Red Oak, Nuttail Oak, California Black Oak, Laurel Oak, Water Oak, Shumard Oak, or Willow Oak for the Scarlet Oak when shopping for the tree. It is even misidentified in the nursery trade at times. Look for the deep “C”-shaped lobes on the scarlet oak’s leaves, as compared to the often “U”-shape of other species in the Red Oak group.

When wanting to plant the scarlet oak, you will have to take into consideration the scarcity of the tree in the nursery trade. But this should not stop you. The tree can be found online with some searching and it is worth the time.

The scarlet oak is an East Coast native so that should give you a head start on where to look.

Botanical Name  Quercus coccinea
Common Name  Scarlet Oak
Plant Type Tree
Mature Size 50 to 70 ft. Tall  40 to 50 ft. Wide 
Sun Exposure Full Sun
Soil Type average, dry to medium, well-drained soil
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time April to May
Flower Color Yellow to Green
Hardiness Zone 4-9
Native Range Eastern United States
Toxicity Non-toxic

Scarlett Oak Care

For such a large strong looking tree, oaks are often pretty difficult to grow. The root of the problem is well, the roots. It sets a single deep growing taproot that makes successful transplanting near impossible.

When a large sapling is bought in a container, the tree has often become root-bound and will need to be pruned before it is successfully planted. The root pruning is not subtle either. It is drastic, traumatic, risky, and often dangerous for the tree.

Planting a larger oak sapling requires a lot of effort for a slim chance of success. Once planted, the tree will require a lot of healing before the tree begins to show vertical growth.   The solution is easy. Buy the smallest tree that you can possibly find. It is not uncommon to see tiny planted seedlings outgrow ten-foot-tall nursery transplants in just a few years.

Pick the spot you plant your Scarlet Oak carefully. A good position for the tree is a full sun vista in a large garden with plenty of room to grow as this tree gets large, reaching 60-80 feet tall, with a spread of 40-50 feet wide, and a trunk diameter up to three feet.

Light

If you provide your scarlet oak with plenty of sun it will be its healthiest and provide you with the best fall color. Full sun is your best bet. 

Soil

Plant your tree in well-drained soil that is dry, and, preferably, acidic.

Water

Medium water is all that is required to keep the scarlet oak thriving. It is drought-tolerant once established. 

Temperature and Humidity

If your garden is in Zone 4 through 9 you should have no issues growing the scarlet oak. It does not do well in extreme dry heat.

Fertilizer

Resist the urge to fertilize your scarlet oak, it is not necessary. 

Is Scarlet Oak Toxic?

The acorns from the Scarlet Oak were often used by Native Americans and the tree is non-toxic. Scarlet Oak acorns are more tannic than others, so these tannins were often leeched from the fruits by soaking in water for a length of time and swapping the water occasionally. This water would be used for dying. The bark and wood were used for medicinal purposes for their astringency.

Growing Scarlet Oak Trees From Seedlings

Successfully planting a scarlet oak seedling is easy if you follow the Five P’s: 

  1. Pick the right spot: When you pick the site, remember this will be a large tree.
  2. Plant a seedling: When picking a plant, bigger is not better when it comes to oaks.
  3. Protect it: A tree guard is a smart move. Critters will love to eat your tree as it grows.
  4. Plant Right: You dig a wide hole, not a deep one. Dig a hole twice as wide as your roots are deep.
  5. Place Mulch: Mulch with organic mulch two to three inches high, but do not let it touch the trunk.