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Mr. Smarty Plants - Differentiating between red oak, Shumard oak and American sycamore

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Sunday - February 05, 2006

From: New Braunfels, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Trees
Title: Differentiating between red oak, Shumard oak and American sycamore
Answered by: Nan Hampton

QUESTION:

I have a few trees growing in an arroyo and I'm pretty certain that they are either red oak, shumard red oak, or Texas sycamore. The trees are deciduous and have a scaled grey bark which becomes lighter and patchy as one looks up the tree. I have read that both red oak and sycamores do this. Is there a way to identify them by looking at the bark?

ANSWER:

There shouldn't be any confusion between American sycamore, (Platanus occidentalis) and the two oaks. Both the oaks generally have deep vertical ridges on them. The sycamore's older bark is thinner and is not ridged as deeply as the oaks. The sycamore's younger bark is without ridges and often has green, tan and white patches. Also, if your trees are mature sycamores, you should see some of the fruits on the ground or still hanging on the tree. Robert Vines in Trees of Central Texas gives this description of the barks of the three trees:

1. Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) bark: 'Reddish brown, scaling off in thin plates to expose the conspicuous white, or greenish, new bark."
2. Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii) bark: "Grey to reddish brown, smooth or broken into small tight interlacing ridges.
3. Texas oak (Q. texana) bark: "Dark grey to black with thick short ridges and platelike scales, fissures deep."

You are likely to have a bigger problem distinguishing between the Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii) and the Texas oak (Q. texana, synonym=Q. buckleyi)—also known as Red oak, Spanish oak, or Nuttall oak—by the bark alone; or, for that matter, even after they leaf out and produce acorns. Indeed, Robert Vines (Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines of the Southwest. 1960. Austin: University of Texas Press) says that "The close relationship of Texas Oak and Shumard Oak has been a botanical classification problem. Some botanists prefer to classify the two as separate species, but others prefer to reduce Texas Oak to a varietal of Shumard Oak and give it the name of Q. shumardii var. texana (Buckl.) Ashe."
 

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