Red oak at back of Burrawang pub

In addition to English and pin oaks, the other sort you see commonly around here (in the Southern Highlands, where we are spending our December) is a red oak of some kind. I use the words ‘other sort’ and ‘of some kind’ because while I want to call some of them northern red oak (Quercus rubra) I’m not sure that’s true for all. I’m struggling to identify one in particular, on the streets of Mittagong. It might be a scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), or a hybrid between a couple of different ‘red oaks’ (the subgroup which includes the pin oak).

As I struggle with the taxonomy, I’m reminded of something William Golding wrote in a book review back in 1960 (quoted recently in The Sea is Not Made of Water:
Life Between the Tides
by Adam Nicolson). He described his ‘Victorian fathers’ as ‘lassoing phenomena with Latin names, listing docketing and systematising’. Golding was advocating a little more humility, and poring over fragments of life, rather than striving to capture it elements whole in boxes tied up with a nice botanical ribbon.

Taxonomy and classification can easily become an end in themselves. While an accurate name is the key to all we (who use botanical names and all that goes with that) know about a living organism, we/I can become more interested in the correct binomial than what lies behind it.

On the flip side, being able to name and talk about things leads to not only interesting conversations but often more appreciation and concern for the thing we have named. That can be a good thing.

Leaves on red oak behind Burrawang pub
Leaves on red oak in Bowral, in park behind Bradman Oval
Immature acorns on red oak in Bowral, in park behind Bradman Oval

Onward then, but with humility. The leaves of the ‘red oaks’ are generally larger than those of the pin oak and those sinuses between the leaf lobes are more like a V than a U. That’s what you’ll read in the learned texts. You’ll also find that the undersurface of the pin oak leaf has a tuft of tawny hair where the side veins on the leaf meet the mid-vein. I like to think of it as an unshaven armpit (and I may be indebted here to my friend Neville Walsh for this comparison…)

Pin oak leaves in Bowral
Hairy ‘armpit’ of pin oak in Bowral

The northern red oak and scarlet oak have shaven armpits or – just to irritate the Victorian father (hey, that’s me, literally!) sometimes a few tufts now and then, mainly in young leaves. Or are these leaves from hybrid plants? I’m thinking now that while the tree in Mittagong may not be a full-blooded northern red oak, the ones photographed in Burrawang and Bowral are very much so. 

There are also differences in bark and acorn size (and probably more) but I’m sticking with leaves today. Here are the leaves of the northern red and the pin oaks for comparison.

Red oak leaf (left) and pin oak leaf, from the top

Red oak leaf (left) and pin oak leaf (with hairy armpit), from the bottom

But there I go docketing and systematising again.

What I should say is that the red oak growing behind the pub in Burrawang (at the top of the post) is a magnificent specimen, in stature and in the texture of its soft green canopy. Generally, though, the pin oaks in the area cope better with the stress of street life and little water.

As to that difficult-to-identify street tree in Mittagong, it has beautiful red-coloured new growth and one day may become a tree of stature. That should be enough.

If you need a lasso of some kind, all the plants photographed here are part of the red oak group in the genus Quercus. Their leaves are quite different to those of the English oak and its sort because the lobes – the ragged extensions on the sides of each leaf – are pointy rather than blunt. That much is true and, I think, helpful.

To finish, here are the leaves and acorns of the Mittagong which, the more I look at them the more I see them allied to the northern red oak rather than the pin oak … Or perhaps the scarlet oak …


oak in streets of Mittagong
red new growth on oak in streets of Mittagong
Immature acorns on oak in streets of Mittagong (larger than those in typical pin oak…)

Leaves from oak in streets of Mittagong (larger than typical pin oak leaves, with barely any armpit hairs)

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *