Turkey oak is a small oak with large deciduous leaves; thick, furrowed bark; and an open, irregular crown. Averaging just 15-30 ft (4.5-9 m) in height, turkey oak, under the best of conditions, can potentially reach up to 65 ft (15 m) tall. Where natural fires are frequent (as was the case before European settlement), turkey oak usually grows as a shrub and rarely attains tree status. Turkey oak leaves are 5-12 in (12-30 cm) long, with 3-5 (rarely 7) deeply dissected lobes, each sharply pointed at its tip. They tend to hang down and may all face the same way during hot, sunny days. The acorns are large, about one inch (2.5 cm) long, with a cup that enclose about a third of the nut. The acorns mature in two growing seasons.
Many people (especially in Florida) who are familiar with turkey oak insist on calling it "blackjack oak." This is unfortunate because there really is a blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica) that grows naturally in the southeastern U.S., including northern Florida.
Turkey oak leaves adjust their postion relative to the direction of the sun throughout the day.
Location Quercus laevis, turkey oak, was part of the original upland longleaf pine savanna (known as "high pine" or "sand hills") which once covered more than 40 million acres on the U.S. southeastern Coastal Plain. Almost all of the original longleaf pine savanna has been destroyed, but turkey oak still persists in "turkey oak barrens", the manmade habitat that now occupies former high pine lands. Whereas turkey oak was once a minor component of the landscape, it now dominates many acres where the longleaf pines have been removed, the wiregrass (Aristida stricta) has died out, and fire is no longer part of the natural ecosystem. See Floridata's account of longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) for more on this virtually extinct plant community.
Turkey oak thrives on practically sterile sands. Light: Turkey oak flourishes in full sun. It remains bushlike in partial shade. Moisture: Turkey oak grows naturally in the driest, sandiest, most well drained upland sites. Hardiness: USDA Zones 7-10. Propagation: Turkey oak acorns take two years to mature, then they need a pre-chilling period before they will germinate. Even short term storage of acorns is difficult to impossible. The best procedure is to plant the acorns in the fall, as soon as they fall from the tree. They will germinate the following spring, sending down a taproot first, then the beginnings of an above ground trunk. As a group, oaks tend to be difficult to propagate from cuttings.
The rough, dark gray bark of the turkey oak turns black when wet.
Turkey oak is rarely seen in cultivation, but it can be very common on former high pine sites awaiting development. The natural succession of plant communities in the uplands of the American Southeast seems to be: longleaf pine savanna (high pine) succeeds to turkey oak barrens which succeeds to residential subdivision. If you do plant a turkey oak you will have a fast growing, carefree tree that needs no supplemental watering or fertilizing. It will provide abundant acorn crops for squirrels, deer, turkeys, and other critters. It will not get huge if planted on a poor, dry, sandy site. On good, rich soil, in full sun, with abundant moisture, it will amaze you with the speed of its growth and its eventual size.
In spring, turkey oak (like pecan, Carya illinoiensis) is one of the last trees to leaf out. During hot summer afternoons, turkey oak leaves align with the sun, presenting only their thin edges to the sun's drying rays. In autumn the leaves turn red-brown and often persist on the tree for several weeks into winter. Turkey oak bark is thick, providing protection from the nearly annual natural fires that formerly swept across the high pine landscape.