Blog Post By Jona Elwell

Celebrating Our National Tree Round V: D.C.’s Official Tree

The United States of America is a unique, goofy place and Fourth of July seems to bring about a universal patriotic mood – especially in our Nation’s Capital! While eagles typically come to mind as the symbol of the States, did you know the U.S. has an official national tree? Only formally recognizedin 2004 (!) Congress named the Oak tree as our national tree. No species, just the genus Quercus. To celebrating this stately tree, and our beloved country, we’re spending the month of July highlight Oak species prevalent in D.C. Next up is the Scarlet Oak, the second most common oak we’ve identified through our Park Inventories and D.C.’s official tree!

The scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) is the official tree of the District of Columbia and has some of the most brilliant colors you will see in the fall season. Its deep red autumn colors appear late in the fall season and give the tree its common name. The scarlet oak is native to the Eastern United States. Its habitat stretches along most of the Appalachian Mountains, but can also be found in Southern Indiana, Southeastern Missouri and Mississippi.

A scarlet oak in Rock Creek Park showing off. Photo by Katja Schulz/Flickr

The scarlet oak shares many similarities to its close cousin, the pin oak, but several key features make it easily identifiable. The scarlet oak’s acorn is larger at one half to one inch long and features a deep cup that covers almost half of the nut. The scarlet oak also features ascending branches that can form an open, rounded or irregular crown that looks markedly different from the horizontal and drooping branches of the pin oak.

The scarlet oak’s leaves are simple and oval-shaped with deep C-shaped cuts that create up to nine bristly lobes. The leaves are a bright and shiny green on top with a paler shaded underside and are usually three to seven inches long. The leaves autumn colors range from a subtle russet to the deep scarlet coloration the tree is famous for.

Facts about the scarlet oak:

  • The scarlet oak prefers dry and sandy soils especially along ridges and slopes
  • The tree’s canopy can spread up to 50 feet in diameter
  • The scarlet oak’s acorns are a food source for gray squirrels, mice, deer, wild turkey and other birds
  • Their taproot system can make the scarlet oak difficult to transplant
  • These trees can fare droughts much better than other trees

The scarlet oak can be found in a variety of locations throughout the District, but some of the more famous locations include the grounds of the White House, Supreme Court, and the Capitol. They can also be found along New Hampshire Avenue NW, the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, Tudor Place in Georgetown, and Rock Creek Park. Notable examples are the 2006 Champion Scarlet Oak at 3374 Minnesota Avenue SE or the Scarlet Oak in the main quad of American University that is not only the largest and oldest tree on campus – it’s as old if not older than the university itself!

Scarlet oak leaves photo credit. Editor’s note: We originally posted this Scarlet Oak profile in 2011 as part of our Tree of the Month series.

Check out all the other Oaks we’ve highlighted in July:
Round I: Willow Oak (the most common street tree oak)
Round II: Pin Oak (the second most common street tree oak)
Round III: Northern Red Oak (the third common street tree oak)
Round IV: Swamp White Oak (the most common oak we’ve inventoried)

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