A Forager’s Guide to Acorn and Oak Tree Types

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Illustration by Fotolia/oleg7799
Even if your knowledge of oak tree types is a little sketchy, when the nuts mature and fall a wide bounty will be there for the gathering.

Maybe you think, “If you’ve seen one acorn you’ seen them all.” Well, as the following forager’s guide should make clear, there are over twodozen oak tree types. Which means there are just as many types of acorns (and one type from a tree that in spite of its name technically isn’t an oak). For culinary purposes, the nuts can be divided into two categories: sweet acorns and bitter acorns.

Sweet Acorns

Ballota Oak (Quercus ilex var. rotundifolia): A medium-size evergreen oak from southwestern Europe and northern Africa with large, edible acorns that take two years to mature.

Bur Oak (Q. macrocarpa): A medium-size, drought-resistant deciduous tree found in the mideastern U.S., Canada, and south to Texas. This slow-grower prefers limestone soils and is used commercially for its wood. The 2″ acorns mature in one season, and an acorn-producing cultivar, Q.m. Ashworth, is available commercially.

Chestnut Oak (Q. prinus): A medium-size tree of the eastern U.S. that’s tolerant of a wide range of soils and sites. This slow-grower produces quality wood and 1″ to 1 1/2″ acorns that mature in one season.

Chinquapin Oak (Q. muehlenbergii): A widely distributed medium-size deciduous tree of the Midwest and eastern U.S. that prefers alkaline soil. The chinquapin grows rapidly, has very durable wood, and produces 1″ acorns in one season.

Dwarf Chinquapin Oak (Q. prinoides): A small tree or shrub of the eastern U.S. that’s common to dry, rocky slopes. The 1″ acorns mature in one season.

Emory Oak (Q. emoryi): A small to medium-size tree of the southwestern U.S. Its sweet acorns take one year to mature.

Gambel Oak (Q. gambehi): This small to medium-size tree is the most common oak of the Rockies. The sweet 1 ” acorns, which mature in one season, were used extensively by the Indians.

Huckleberry Oak(Q. vaccinitfolia): A shrubby mountain evergreen found at elevations up to 10,000 feet in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. The small acorns mature in their second year.

Live Oak (Q. virginiana): A large, spreading evergreen oak found primarily in the southern states. This fast-growing species is tolerant of moist, sandy soils and produces very dense, durable wood. The 1″ acorns mature in one season.

Mongolian Oak (Q. mongolica): A tall deciduous oak native to northeastern Asia. This important lumber tree has small, 3/4″ acorns that mature in one season and are extremely sweet.

Swamp Chestnut Oak (Q. michauxii): A medium-size tree of the southeastern U.S. that prefers moist locations. The very sweet acorns are about 1″ in length and mature in one season.

Swamp White Oak (Q. bicolor): A medium-size deciduous tree that’s found in the northeastern U.S. and west to Nebraska. It’s tolerant of swampy conditions and grows rapidly, producing good wood that was once favored for barrels. The large (up to 4″) acorns mature in one season.

Valley Oak (Q. lobata): This is the largest of the western oaks and is restricted to California. It’s most common in rich bottomland but can be found up to 6,000 feet. The wood is of value only as firewood, but one tree may yield as much as a ton of 2″ acorns in one year.

Valonia Oak (Q. aegilops): A semi-evergreen oak of the eastern Mediterranean. The acorn is reportedly sweet, and the cap was formerly harvested for its tannin.

White Oak (Q. alba): This medium to tall tree of the eastern U.S. tolerates a wide variety of conditions. It’s an excellent tree for wood and a prolific producer of 3/4″ acorns that mature in one season.

Bitter Acorns

Black Oak (Q. velutina): This species favors dry soils and is hound primarily in the central and eastern U.S. Its acorns mature in two years.

California Live Oak (Q. agrifolia): An attractive evergreen tree of the California coast that produces firewood-quality wood and 1 3/4″ acorns that ma cure in one season.

Cork Oak (Q. saber): These long-lived (to 500 years) evergreen trees are native to the Mediterranean, yet have done well from Maryland to California. The species is an attractive ornamental and produces cork at 10-to 20-year intervals. The acorns, which mature in one season, may be as large as 1 1/2″.

Kellogg Oak (Q. kelloggii): An attractive medium to large tree with a broad crown. This species tolerates a range of conditions from clay to gravelly soil. Its wood is of no value except as firewood, but the 1-3/4″ acorns, which take two seasons to mature, were favored by the Indians. One tree may produce in excess of 1/2 ton of acorns a year.

Laurel Oak (Q. laurifolia): This rapidly growing medium-size tree of the South is short-lived (it matures in 50 years), but it produces heavily. The 1″ acorns mature in their second season.

Northern Pin Oak or Jack Oak (Q. ellipsoidalis): A fast-growing medium-size tree of the Midwest that produces good wood for flooring and furniture. The 3/4″ acorns mature in their second season.

Red Oak (Q. rubra): A fast-growing medium-size tree of the northeastern U.S. that does well on a variety of soils. It’s used ornamentally here arid in Europe, and the 1″ acorns mature in their second season.

Scarlet Oak(Q. coccinea): A rapidly growing deciduous tree of the north-central U.S. that’s often used as an ornamental because of its bright red foliage. The 1″ acorns take two years to mature.

Shumard Oak(Q. shumardii): A southeastern deciduous oak that reaches up to 130′ in height. The wood is valued for veneer, furniture, and flouring. The 1″ acorns take two years to mature, and the tree produces a heavy crop every 2 to 4 years.

Water Oak(Q. nigra): This southeastern oak grows rapidly and is frequently grown as a street trey The 3/4″ acorns mature in their second year.

Non-Oak Acorns

Tanbark Oak(Lithocarpos densiflorus): This medium-size tree is native to California and Oregon and thrives in humid areas. The sweet 3/4″ acorns mature in two years.