Height: 50 to 70 feet (rarely, it can reach twice this height)
Lifespan: Long-lived; up to 400 years
Fall Foliage: Not very spectacular. Yellow to brown.
Range: Most of the eastern United States, from Louisiana to Maine.
Typical Habitat: Relatively dry, rocky, uplands.
The Chestnut Oak: A Tale of Two Species
Nature lovers researching the chestnut oak often run into a problem: It’s often associated with either of three different scientific names. Some sources refer to it as Quercus prinus, others refer to it as Quercus michauxii, and still others call it Quercus montana.
Well, two species – currently recognized as the chestnut oak (Quercus montana) and the swamp chestnut oak (Quercus michauxii) – were formerly considered a single species. And this species was often associated with the name Quercus prinus (which is no longer considered valid for either species).
Generally speaking, there is a great deal of confusion surrounding these two species, and you may encounter resources using any of those three scientific names to refer to either of the actual species that exist.
Crystal clear, right?
Identification: Tips & Tricks
The only trees you’re likely to mistake this one for are chestnuts or other oaks with similar leaves – namely, the swamp chestnut oak referenced above and the chinquapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii).
You probably haven’t encountered an American chestnut, as the species is quite rare and functionally extinct. You may, however, spot a Chinese chestnut. In either case, just look around for the tree’s fruit. If they’re acorns, you’ve got an oak on your hands; if they’re big, pin-cushion looking things, you have a chestnut.
As for distinguishing the chestnut oak from the swamp chestnut oak or chinquapin, you can consider the bark on the trunk and main branches on mature trees: Chestnut oak bark is large, blocky, and distinctive, whereas the other two species have thinner bark that looks vaguely white-oakish.
Also, the undersides of chinquapin oak leaves bear small, round glands at the lobe tips, while the undersides of swamp chestnut oak leaves feel velvety.
The Chestnut Oak: Additional Information
We already warned you that it can be tricky to research this species, but these three pages will get you off to a good start:
- U.S. Forest Service: Comprehensive guide to both the chestnut oak and the swamp chestnut oak, including range maps for both.
- North Carolina State Extension: Basic information on the species, most of which is presented in a quick-and-easy chart.
- Missouri Botanical Gardens: Additional information, including notes on the culture of the species.