Footsteps in the Forest

Chestnut Oak

Quercus montana

Height: The chestnut oak tree usually reaches about 50 to 70 feet in height (rarely, it can grow twice as tall)

Evergreen/Deciduous: Deciduous

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.

chestnut oak tree leaf

The Chestnut Oak Tree: 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.

What gives?

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 the three scientific names mentioned above to refer to either of the actual species that exist.

Crystal clear, right?

Chestnut Oak Tree 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 Tree: 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:

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