Exploring the Oaks

There are 26 species of oaks recorded in the state of Florida, so it’s not exactly an easy genus to conquer. In fact, upon doing a little exploring locally at Brooker Creek Preserve Environmental Education Center, we found that a couple dichotomous keys for oaks often led us to a dead end or an endless loop! A good pair to start with is laurel oak versus live oak. I was going to write about that, but I found an old blog our former Urban Horticulture Agent, Pam Brown wrote on this topic, so I didn’t see the need to recreate the wheel 😉

Instead, today we will look at another two species of oaks that can be confused in Florida, and that is turkey oak (Quercus laevis) and southern red oak (Quercus falcata), also known as Spanish oak.

Where to Start?

When it comes to identifying trees, or really any plant, there are two important things to consider before you even look at the actual plant itself. And that is to identify the habitat in which the plant is growing and note where (in the state) you are finding the plant. I bring this up because if you’re here in Pinellas County and you think you’re looking at a southern red oak, well…you’re probably not. That’s because the natural range of southern red oak is in the northern part of the state. Ironic, right? Turkey oak on the other hand is found throughout most of the state with the exception of the southeastern counties.

So, how to tell the two apart?

If you have leaves to compare, this is a great place to start. If not, skip to the “Buds” section below. Here you want to focus on the base of the leaf, that is, the part of the leaf closest to where it connects to the branch, but not the stem (petiole). For southern red oak, the base will have more of a U-shape. I think of this as a “southern bell”. The leaf base of the turkey oak comes a point and is more V-shaped. If you’re not quite sure on that, flip the leaf over to back side and look/feel for the presence of hairs. The entire underside of the southern oak leaf will be covered in fine hairs. The underside of the turkey oak leaf will only have patches of hairs in the corners of where the leaf veins intersect with the main mid-rib.

Leaves and buds of turkey oak (Quercus laevis).

The great thing about trees is that even without leaves, there is so much more you can explore to help with identification. For the buds, it’s usually easiest to look at the bud at the very end of the branch where new growth will form. The terminal buds of southern red oak are described as chestnut brown in color and smaller than those of turkey oak. The terminal buds of turkey oak are longer and more slender than that of southern red oak, and more reddish in color.

Leaves and buds of southern red oak (Quercus falcata).

All oaks produce acorns, but they are all little bit different. If you’re able to access the fruit of these trees, here’s what to look for. The acorn of the southern red oak is smaller than that of turkey oak, more rounded in appearance and are displayed on a short stalk, singly off the twig. Turkey oak acorns have a very prominent tip on them and the “cap” or top of the acorn is rolled inward toward the nut in a very distinct fashion.

Acorns of the southern red oak (Quercus falcata).

Acorn of the turkey oak (Quercus laevis).
So there you have it, turkey oak versus southern red oak…done!

Happy learning 🙂 If you’re more of a visual learning, check out this video that highlights how to tell these two species apart.

If you enjoyed this series and would like to read more about commonly confused plants and animals in Florida, you can find more here:

Posted: April 19, 2018

Category: Florida-Friendly Landscaping, Forests, Natural Resources
Tags: Commonly Confused, Lara Milligan, Oaks, Southern Red Oak, Spanish Oak, Tree Identification, Turkey Oak

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