Oregon White Oak
The ecology and biology of the live tree in its native environment
Local range: At elevations up to 3,800 ft. Oregon white oak is widespread at lower elevations in most of the Willamette, Umpqua, and Rogue River Valleys of western Oregon. It is also common in the Klamath Mountains. The map below indicates the portions of Oregon white oak’s range beyond our local woodshed.
Height: 50 to 90 feet tall.
Leaf: Deciduous; oblong to obovate, 3–6 inches long, 2–5 inches wide and deeply lobed with 7–9 rounded, often irregular, lobes.
Bark: Grayish; may be shaggy or have shallow ridges and fissures.
Fruit: Acorn with shallow cap; about 1 inch long.
Of note: The scientific name was chosen by David Douglas to honor Nicholas Garry, secretary and later deputy governor of the Hudson Bay Company.
The values and qualities of its wood
The wood of Oregon white oak rates high in compression and shear strength and is outstanding among 20 northwestern woods in tension and side hardness tests.
Specialty items, fence posts, and fuel are now the primary uses of Oregon white oak. The wood is considered one of the best fuels for home heating. It has been used for flooring, interior finish, furniture, and agricultural implements.
Legacy of Use
Oregon White Oak and the Main Floor of Timberline Lodge
You can’t throw a snowball inside the majestic Timberline Lodge and not hit at least one jaw-dropping design feature. The tongue-and-groove wood floor of the main lodge is an unusual pattern made from Oregon white oak. Wide and medium-length planks abut narrow planks in a distinctive fashion. It appears a bit like a floor of wood scraps that someone tried to make look uniform; almost an afterthought. And, if historical records are an accurate representation of the importance of a feature, then the floor at Timberline Lodge appears to be a forgotten element.
Historically, Oregon white oak stands have either thrived or declined depending on prevailing land use practices. Native Americans conducted annual burns to promote certain food plants and animal habitat. Oregon white oaks, especially older trees, happened to survive and even prosper in the frequent burns. When pioneers settled in Oregon in the mid-1800s however, they displaced Native Americans and the yearly burns ceased. Oak stands were then eclipsed by fast-growing Douglas fir and land development. At the time, the felled white oak was put to good use in buildings, furniture, and floors because of its celebrated hardwood qualities. In 1906, mills churned out countless board feet to supply San Francisco with wood flooring after the earthquake. Today, less than 5% of Oregon white oaks still exist.
It is difficult to discern when the bulk of Oregon white oak was crowded out or harvested. If it had been largely harvested by the 1930s, it is possible that Oregon white oak grew to be considered a kind of undesirable weed; a random, slow-growing species that had little value. However, restoration specialist John Platz noted that two buildings built around the same time, the Overlook Building in Eagle Creek and the State Forester’s building in Salem, also used Oregon white oak flooring. Perhaps Oregon white oak was still fairly abundant and popular as a local hardwood after all, making it a perfect choice as a symbol of Oregon’s natural beauty.
By Kristin Kaye