How to Grow White Oak Trees (Quercus alba)

White oak tree branches with large lobed and glossy leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

In This Article

Globally there roughly 500 species in the genus Quercus, with about 58 being native to North America. Quercus alba, the white oak, is one of the continent’s predominant tree species appearing throughout Eastern North America’s forests.

While it will not disappoint as a design feature, it is essential to remember that oaks are among the most valuable native trees we can plant. The white oak provides a habitat and food for countless species of wildlife. The white oak is the best tree to plant to attract butterflies. It supports a ridiculous 934 caterpillar species throughout the nation! If you want to support pollinators and attract birds, planting white oaks is the way to ensure that will happen.

If there is room, the tree is a beautiful and invaluable addition to a landscape for its aesthetic value and role in the local ecosystem.

Botanical Name Quercus alba
Common Name White Oak
Plant Type  Deciduous
Mature Size 60-100 ft. tall, 50-90 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Rich, moist, well-drained, loamy
Soil pH 5.5-6.5
Bloom Time May
Flower Color Yellow-Green
Hardiness Zones USDA 3-9
Native Area  Eastern United States

White Oak Tree Care

The white oak is a symbol of strength and endurance, and its longevity and size make it apparent why. Grown in forests and other natural landscapes, the white oak is much more resistant to disease than its red oak cousins. When grown in a yard, however, it is more likely to rot than a red oak. The biggest concern is in the planning and placement of your tree.   

When planning to plant a white oak you need to think not only why you want to plant it, but also why not: the white oak can grow to epic sizes, especially if given the space to spread out a bit. When the white oak is planted in the open, its spread can be as wide as its height. If space is limited, a different species is a better choice for your landscape design. Even if you do have plenty of room you need to consider what will be in the area and around the tree and does its future size inhibit any future plans you might have for its space.

If you have the space and the time, the rest of a white oak's care is an easy task that doesn't require much effort once the tree is established.

White oak tree with tall trunk and sprawling branches with large leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

White oak tree with tall trunk and short extending branches in sunlight

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

White oak tree trunk with brown peeling-like bark and large leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

White oak branch with large lobed leaves closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Light

The white oak is a tree that thrives in full sun. Younger trees will tolerate some partial shade, but as the trees age, their ability to tolerate shade will become an issue. A noticeable difference will occur in trees planted in full sun. Besides tree health full sun, you will want to ensure full sun to get the absolute best fall colors.  

Soil

White oak prefers acidic to neutral soil that is deep moist, and well-draining.  It does not tolerate
alkaline or shallow soils.

Water

Freshly planted white oaks should be watered regularly for the first season until established. Infrequent deep soaking is the goal rather than quick daily watering. (Imagine a rainy day compared to a passing storm.) When planting the tree, mulching beneath the canopy will help it establish itself and prosper in its new location by keeping the area moist and reduce competition with grass and other plants.

Temperature and Humidity

The white oak can exist in a wide range of temperatures, from a very frigid winter in Minnesota to a relatively mild Florida winter. The white oak's optimum range has an average temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The tree thrives in USDA Zones 3-9. The white oak is more tolerant of higher temperatures than many other Northern species. While other natives will likely be adversely affected by warming regional climates, the white oak will persist.

Fertilizer

White oaks do not need supplemental fertilization, but testing the soil and amending the soil can rule out soil deficiencies if the tree is not thriving. Waiting on the test results is important, but generally using a fertilizer with a low nitrogen content is best for oaks to avoid creating weak
branch growth.

Pruning

White oaks make terrific street trees and are famous for their use in allée (an alley in a formal garden or park). When forming an oak allée or planting on the street, some training and structural pruning will be needed on the tree’s allée side to create a thoroughfare. If your tree is just going to create some shade, you want to do some structural pruning, or there may be times when you need to trim the deadwood off the tree.

Performing some easy structural pruning during the oak’s initial years (but not in its first) will help establish a straight tree with a single trunk and branches that are not prone to breaking. Doing your pruning in the late winter when the tree is dormant is when you want to do this work. To tackle this project, use pruning shears if the branch is under a 1/2 inch thick, loppers for anything above 1/2 to 2 inches thick, and a pruning saw for anything 2 to 5 inches thick. With the right tool, simply cut branches that make a deep “V” shape or extend inward. Your goal is to create an upright tree with a tall, raised canopy.

As the tree matures and requires ladders and chain saws to make thicker cuts, it is safer to call in the services of a certified arborist or licensed tree service to prune the tree.