Laurel oak (Quercus laurifolia) is one of about 19 native oaks that grow in Florida. There are several common names for Q. laurifolia, but only one scientific binomial for any species, in any language, anywhere on Earth. Laurel oak ranges in cold zones 6–10 across the Southeastern coastal plain from southeast Texas, throughout Florida and north along the Atlantic coast to Virginia and New Jersey.
The single, erect trunk sheds lower small branches as it grows taller and creates dense canopy shade. With a 50–70 year lifespan, this adaptable, short-lived, medium-sized semi-evergreen red oak species can grow in humus-rich moist soil alongside wet areas as well as in moist woods, dry sandhills and scrub habitats. It is not adapted to fire, but grows in pine forests if fire is excluded. Further south, in frost-free central and south Florida, Laurel oak appears evergreen.
About 600 oak species are in the Quercus genus of the beach family, Fagaceae, in Earth’s northern hemisphere (the Americas, North Africa, Asia and Europe). Some oaks are leafless (deciduous) in winter; other southern oaks are evergreen and some are semi-deciduous. Oaks replace all their leaves annually, but the “evergreen” ones sprout new leaves on or before dropping the previous year’s leaves.
North America has the most oak species. There are 90 oak species in the continental U.S. The 160 species in Mexico include 109 endemic species which grow naturally nowhere else on Earth. China has about 100 oak species. Only 13 deciduous oak species grow in Canada.
Laurel oak is relatively fast-growing, reaching, on average, 65 to 80 feet tall in about 50 years, with a large symmetrical rounded crown spreading 30 to 80 feet in diameter. In full sun to part shade, Laurel oaks are often used as street, roadside, parking lot and ornamental shade trees in commercial, residential, municipal and agricultural settings. Their wood is used for pulpwood and firewood.
The alternate, simple Laurel oak leaves vary in shape and size depending on different sites, soil, moisture, age and conditions. Some are lance-shaped, others diamond-shape and rarely, some may have three shallow lobes. The leaf edges are entire not toothed or serrated. Leaves are 3 to 5 inches long and 1 too 1.5 inches wide and are widest toward the middle. They feel thinner, but not as stiff with rolled edges as live oak leaves. Leaves may persist through winter in warmer, frost-free regions. They are dark green and glossy above but pale and smooth underneath. Shed leaves decompose fairly quickly to release nutrients back to the soil. They can be mulched with a mower to speed decomposition.
Many insects eat Laurel oak leaves, but are not serious problem pests. Two Florida butterfly caterpillars host on Laurel oak leaves: Horace’s Duskywing and White M Hairstreak.
Twigs are slender, hairless and a pale reddish-brown. Pointed buds occur at the ends of twigs. The large upright trunks have furrowed, dark gray bark. Male, pollen-bearing catkins and female spiky flowers form at the leaf bases in spring.
Fruit is an acorn about 1 inch long and half covered in the surrounding shallow cup. Green, hemispherical Laurel oak acorns form one year, ripen to dark brown in the autumn then fall from the tree when new leaves are emerging in spring. Seedling embryos are dormant and germinate about 18 months after pollination — usually in the following autumn.
The kernel has a bitter taste. Acorns are an important food source for wildlife including deer, ducks, geese, turkeys, quail, squirrels and other rodents, mammals and birds. A small insect beetle with a long snout, Curculigo weevil, lays eggs in acorns. Their larval stage, a legless grub, feeds on acorns and other nut fruits.
Jane Weber is a professional gardener and consultant. Semi-retired, she grows thousands of native plants. Contact her at email@example.com or phone 352-249-6899.