Water Oaks (Quercus nigra) are numerous and widespread throughout bottomland habitats in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of North Carolina. They are also found in lower numbers in many upland areas as well. Although they are generally considered a medium sized tree, huge individuals can be seen in the Falls Lake area, particularly along the Neuse River. They are tardily deciduous, meaning that they retain some of their leaves well into the winter, and younger saplings may have many green leaves left well into February.
Leaves of adults and most young saplings are small and fairly simple in shape: wide at the tip with a gradually tapering, narrow base. The photograph below illustrates the variety of sizes and shapes most often seen in fall leaves from Water Oaks.
The leaves of many young saplings remain green deep into the winter and have a similar, simple pattern. Although Water Oaks are members of the Red Oak family, the bristles can be hard to find on winter leaves.
Surprisingly, some young saplings have “…wildly different leaves than the typical adult form, frequently deeply lobed…” (Weakley’s Flora, May 2015). These trees can be very difficult to identify since they are too young to have acorns, and the bark is not yet mature. When first encountered, the leaves would not remind an observer of a Water Oak leaf. See below.
The Sibley Guide to Trees, by David Allen Sibley, has excellent illustrations of these juvenile, atypical leaves on Page 196. They range from deeply lobed, to narrow and symmetrical. Sibley mentions that the uniformly narrow leaves can resemble those of Willow Oak (Quercus phellos), but are always a small minority of the leaf shapes on the tree. All of the leaves pictured above came from the same branch of a juvenile Water Oak.
As with other members of the Red Oak family, Water Oaks readily hybridize with other closely related family members, creating intermediate trees that require specialists to identify.