Mystery Plant! #778

John Nelson

Posted 6/5/24

By John Nelson

“Habitat in Virginia.”
                        Linnaeus, Species Plantarum (ed. 2) vol. 2, p. 1414

            Well, yes, “it grows in Virginia,” but the one in this picture grows on the USC campus here in Columbia, an easy walk for me.

Now if you draw a line on a map from eastern Texas straight up to Minnesota, you could probably find this tree growing in the area anywhere to the east of the line, except for peninsula Florida. (Sorry, Sunshine State.) This is a well-known tree, and we’re hitting the Easy-Button for this Mystery Plant.

It is indeed an oak, and a very handsome one. It grows in a variety of natural habitats, including differing moisture gradients. It’s a common component of the eastern “oak-hickory” forests. Mature trees may be upwards of 100 feet tall. Those that grow in more or less canopied situations, that is, with lots of close neighbor trees, tend to grow taller and bit “skinner”, if you will, than those individuals growing in more open settings. These trees often develop spectacular crown spreads, measured from one edge to the other, in that the branches reach far away from the main trunk; sometimes the tree will have a spread which can be nearly as great as its height.

(Photo by John Nelson.)

The bark of this species is pale, generally gray or nearly white. It shreds rather evenly, giving a kind of flaking effect. The foliage is nearly unmistakable. Each leaf is on a short petiole, with an oblong blade 4-6 inches long, usually. Each side of the blade will feature several elongated lobes, rounded at the tips, with deep sinuses, and unlike the “red oak” species, without any sort of bristle at the tip of the lobe. Young leaves in the spring as they just unfold are soft and often pink, eventually becoming more durable, and bright green on the upper surface. The lower leaf surface generally features lots of tiny hairs, giving off a whitish effect. This being a deciduous species, the leaves will all fall off in the autumn, but not before changing color, usually a shade of garnet or red, and very attractive. Acorns are produced after the trees get old enough. In nature, the fallen acorns don’t last very long, as hungry critters think they are delicious, quite a treat, and an important food source for a variety of wildlife species. The wood has been prized for a variety of uses. One of the more interesting uses is that of cooperage…or barrel-making. Our oak’s wood is perfect for this task: finished barrels are traditionally used for storing whisky, after the inner surface of the barrel has been charred.

Very stately, old individuals can be found in a number of places, some of them dating back to the time of the American Revolution. They say that one of the most impressive individuals may be found in Bedford, New York. This oak is some 500 years old, and truly magnificent. The Bedfordians are quite proud of it (for information,, and with good reason. A visit to Bedford is on my bucket list.  

[Answer:   “White oak,”  Quercus alba]

John Nelson is the retired curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit or email

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