The oak tree is amongst the most commonly seen trees and can be found in North America, Europe and in tropical regions of Asia. Though it is considered as hardwood, according to botanists, in actuality, it is softer than most hardwoods. The oak tree has around 450 species, each of them having unique features.
The leaf of the oak tree is considered a symbol of strength, honor, endurance and liberty since time immemorial. The Druids believed that the oak tree leaf had strong healing powers. The Celts considered the oak leaf as a powerful symbol. During Roman times, victorious commanders were awarded oak leaf laurels. The oak leaf, in present times, is a symbol of rank and regalia in the US as well as German armed forces.
Before going over to the leaf identification section, it would be useful to quickly cover some information in general about the oak tree.
The oak tree is classified under the genus Quercus, a Latin word meaning ‘oak tree’. It belongs to the beech family (Fagaceae). Other than evergreen and deciduous oak trees, the species also includes smaller plants or oak shrubs. Hybrids, intermediates of two oak tree species, generally take the latter form. The oak tree has many hybrids which can make identification a tough job. The deciduous species of the oak tree are seen in the colder latitudes, while those with evergreen leaves are seen toward the south.
The oak tree leaf is broad, thin and flat and is called a broadleaf. The shape of the leaf may be ovate, obovate and sometimes, elliptic. Oak tree leaves may be deeply pinnatifid-like seen in Canada. The characteristic features in an oak leaf are its lobes and sinuses (space between the lobes). The number of lobes may be from 5 up to 20 in a leaf. The leaves may have a lobed margin, or a smooth margin in the entire leaf. Some leaves are serrated or toothed with smooth margin. The leaves are green, often leathery on top, and pale underneath. Some leaves have tufts of hair near the veins on the underside. The leaves are arranged in a spiral manner, and may also be seen as bunches attached by short leaf stalk or petiole in some oak tree species. The leaves change color in fall taking on a bright gold or scarlet or russet hue. The leaves shed annually, during fall.
» Illustrations by: Meenakshi Iyer
Identifying Each Leaf Type
It’s not possible to list the characteristics of all types of oak tree leaves, but now that you generally know how the oak tree leaf looks, the following descriptions may make leaf identification a less arduous task. So if you know there’s an oak tree in your neighborhood, you can identify its name from the following tips.
Algerian Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus canariensis
Also called Mirbeck’s Oak, these green, semi-glossy leaves have rounded lobes. A unique feature of this leaf is a dusty-white mark where the leaf joins the stem. The leaves are 5 inches long and 3 inches wide. This species is seen a lot in North Africa (hence the name Algerian oak).
Black Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus velutina
This tree is also referred to as yellow oak, yellow-bark oak or smooth oak. The leaves are ovate or obovate in shape. The shade leaves have superficial areas between the lobes, while the sun leaves have deep ones. The leaves are shiny green on the above, and pale with hair below. The leaves display mostly 5 to 7 bristle-tipped lobes.
Canyon Live Oak
Bur Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus macrocarpa
The bur oak leaves are roughly obovate in shape, and have many lobes. The two sinuses in the center divide the bur oak leaf into almost half. The lobes at the leaf’s tip look like a crown. The leaf is green above and pale, fuzzy underneath.
Canyon Live Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus chrysolepis
This tree is also commonly termed as Golden Cup Oak. The lobes of the leaves are typically sharp-tipped, and have bristles at the lobe tip. They are typically glossy dark green on the upper side. Another easy way to identify this leaf type is by noticing that this leaf is geometrically flat.
Caucasian Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus macranthera
A rarely seen oak tree, it is sometimes called Persian Oak, too. Its 15-cm long and 5-cm broad leaves are semi-glossy green. Here again, this leaf has lobes that are blunt and curved.
Cherrybark Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus pagoda
This oak leaf has a V-shaped base, and lobes that appear uniform in shape. The leaf tips are short, broad and without curves. Just as the scientific name suggests, this leaf is reminiscent of a pagoda. Leaves are shiny, smooth and dark green while the undersides appear paler.
Coast Live Oak
Coast Live Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus agrifolia
The leaves are glossy green and unlike the traditional oak leaf are convex in shape. The outer layer contains 2-3 layers of photosynthetic cells, making it apt for solar absorption. These 5-cm long and 3-cm broad leaves have thin-toothed edges that become sharper as they age.
Common Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus robur
This tree is also known by other names such as English oak, pedunculate oak, European oak or French oak. The top of the leaf of this tree is dull green, while the other side is brighter in color. The leaves grow up to 10 cm in size and most of the time, do not have stems and grow in bunches. This leaf has 4-5 lobes that are rounded and of equal size. The common oak tree is found in many countries all over the world.
Cork Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus suber
The ovate to elliptical cork oak leaves of this tree have wavy teeth, cupped surface and round lobes. The leaves are leathery, dark green on top and are whitened below. The leaf margins are often downcurved.
Holm Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus ilex
This tree is also known as Holly Oak. The holm oak’s evergreen leaves can grow up to 7.5 cm long and 2.5 cm broad, but older leaves may be larger. The leaves are of two types, viz. the higher ones have smooth edges, while the lower ones are spiny. The leaves turn glossy green as they age.
Japanese Blue Oak
Hungarian Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus frainetto
Another name for this tree is Italian oak. This deciduous broadleaf is dark green and boldly cut having regular lobes. The semi-glossy green leaves are large, pointed at the apex and long (up to 12 cm) with lobes that are rounded.
Japanese Blue Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus glauca
This tree is also called Ring-cupped Oak or Glaucous-leaf Oak. The “ring cup” comes up from the fact that the mature acorns possess delicate ring markings. The new leaves have a crimson tint that turns glossy green as they age.
Laurel Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus hemisphaerica
This oak tree can be referred to by several other names: Sand laurel oak, Darlington oak, and Laurel-leaf oak. The 7-15 cm long, ovate leaves do not sport the lobes of the traditional oak leaf. Birds and squirrels use its leaves to build their nest.
Live Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus virginiana
Other common names for this tree are Virginia oak, Southern live oak, Sand live oak, Scrub live oak, and Texas live oak. These simple leaves are narrow to elliptical in shape and 5-12 cm long and approximately 2.5-5 cm broad. The leathery leaf has a shiny, darkened green hue above, and a dull gray-green underneath. The base of the leaf tapers, while the tip is pointed and short to round. The leaf’s margin is smooth and slightly wavy.
Northern Pin Oak
Northern Red Oak
Northern Pin Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus ellipsoidalis
The leaves of this ornamental oak, also called Hill’s oak, (not to be mistaken with pin oak) are up to 13 cm long and narrow. Each leaf has 2-5 deep lobes, angled ends and a long stem. The glossy green color of the leaves changes to deep red in fall.
Northern Red Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus rubra
The leaves of the red oak (also called champion oak) are 12-25 cm long, have red-colored midveins and reddish-brown veins. Its 7-11 lobes taper into long bristle-tipped teeth. The new leaf and stalk have a pink hue. The leaf then acquires a green color, turning yellow-green and then a rich red or brown in autumn.
Nuttall Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus texana
The leaves of this North American oak turn a deep red color from a dull green in fall. The leaves have a traditional oak look, except for its lobes which are more angular. The new, lighter-colored leaves have red veins.
Pin Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus palustris
Also referred to by the common name, Swamp Spanish oak, the leaves of this oak tree are simple, alternate and 7-15 cm long. Its 5-9 bristle-tipped lobes have deep sinuses that extend almost to the midrib. The leaves have U-shaped sinuses and may vary in size even on the same tree. Some of the broadly elliptical leaves may have shallow sinuses and wide single-bristled lobes, while others may have deep sinuses and lobes and many bristle-tipped teeth. The leaves are bright green above and pale below with tufts. The fall colors range from brown to russet-brown and sometimes, red and crimson.
Post Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus stellata
The alternate, simple leaves are oblong with 5 lobes. The two middle lobes of these leaves look distinctly square. The post oak leaves have thick texture, are green above and paler below.
Pyrenean Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus pyrenaica
This tree has medium green leaves with an open foliage. The semi-glossy leaves have traditional oak tree lobes. The leaves are generally about 20 cm long and 10 cm broad.
Scarlet Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus coccinea
The leaves of the scarlet oak turn red in October. The leaf form also varies, with many varieties having a thinner and more angular appearance. This oak tree is found in most gardens world over, and is also seen in northeastern US.
Sessile Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus petraea
Commonly called Cornish Oak or Durmast Oak, the leaves of this tree can be distinguished from those of the common oak because they are held on long stems. The leaves are 7-14 cm (2.8-5.5 in) long and 4-8 cm broad. If you notice the leaf pattern, then it will be evenly lobed with 5-6 lobes on either side.
Swamp Chestnut Oak
Shumard Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus shumardii
The leaves are alternately arranged with 5-7 rounded lobes having bristled tips. They are smooth, dark green on top and pale underneath, with brown, waxy hair.
Swamp Chestnut Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus michauxii
This tree is also referred to as basket or cow oak. The leaves of this oak tree are simple, 10-28 cm long and 5-18 cm broad, with 15-20 lobe-like, rounded simple teeth on each side.
Turkey Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus cerris
The 6-13 cm long leaves have sharp tips with bristles at its lobe. The leaves are deeply lobed and generally narrower than most other oak tree leaves. They are glossy green on the top and grow alternately on short twigs.
Water Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus nigra
The deciduous leaves are alternate, and 3-12 cm long and 2-6 cm broad. Its shape is variable. It is commonly shaped like a broad spatula, rounded at top and narrow and wedged at the base. The margins are smooth to shallowly lobed, with the apex and lobe tips ending in a bristle. Unlike other oak trees, the lobes look like drops of water dangling from the end of the leaves. With a dull green to bluish-green top and a paler bluish-green bottom, these leaves sport rusty-colored hair along its veins.
White Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus alba
These leaves are rounded towards the bottom of the sinuses and at the top of the lobe. The leaves have no spines, are darker green on top and lighter green on the underside. The leaves have 7 to 9 finger-like lobes.
Willow Oak Leaf
Scientific Name: Quercus phellos
The leaves of the willow oak are spear-shaped, small and slender, over 12 cm long and 2.5 cm broad. The leaves are light green to yellow-brown in color and turn pale yellow in fall. The waxy leaves have tiny bristles at the tip.
It’s easy to mistake a maple tree leaf for an oak tree leaf because both have lobes and sinuses. A simple way to get over this problem is to check whether the lobes and sinuses are symmetrical or alternate on either side of the leaf. If it is the former, then you have a maple leaf, while in the latter case, you have an oak leaf in your hand. The oak leaf can also be recognized by its size, as it is usually longer than it is wide.