How to Manage and Identify Pin Oak

The Most Widely Planted Oak in the Urban Landscape

Detail shot of leaves on a Pin oak or Quercus palustris.

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Pin oak or Quercus palustris is named for a characteristic where small, thin, dead branches stick out like pins from the main trunk. Pin oak is among the most widely planted native oaks in the urban landscape, the third most common street tree in New York City. It tolerates drought, poor soils and is easy to transplant.

It is popular because of an attractive shape and trunk. The green, glossy leaves show brilliant red to bronze fall color. In many cases, the pin oak can tolerate wet sites but be careful to manage watering and avoid wet sites.

Specifics on Quercus Palustris

Close up of leaves turning red on a Pin Oak tree.

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  • Scientific name: Quercus palustris
  • Pronunciation: KWERK-us pal-US-triss
  • Common name(s): Pin Oak
  • Family: Fagaceae
  • USDA hardiness zones: USDA hardiness zones: 4 through 8A
  • Origin: native to North America
  • Uses: large parking lot islands; wide tree lawns; recommended for buffer strips around parking lots or for median strip plantings in the highway; tree has been successfully grown in urban areas where air pollution, poor drainage, compacted soil, and/or drought are common.

The Pin Oak Cultivars

Red leaves on a Pin Oak tree in an urban street setting.

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The lower branches on pin oak cultivars ‘Crown Right’ and ‘Sovereign’ do not grow down at a 45-degree angle as does the non-cultivar. This branch angle can make the tree unmanageable in close urban settings. These cultivars are thought to be better suited than the natural species as street and parking lot trees. However, graft incompatibility often leads to future trunk failure on these cultivars.

Description of Pin Oak

Structure of a Pin Oak tree with leaves turning red and falling off.

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  • Height: 50 to 75 feet
  • Spread: 35 to 40 feet
  • Crown uniformity: symmetrical canopy with a regular (or smooth) outline and individuals have more or less identical crown forms
  • Crown shape: pyramidal
  • Crown density: moderate
  • Growth rate: medium
  • Texture: medium

Leaf Details

Close up of Pin Oak tree leaves.

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  • Leaf arrangement: alternate
  • Leaf type: simple
  • Leaf margin: lobed; parted
  • Leaf shape: deltoid; oblong; obovate; ovate
  • Leaf venation: pinnate
  • Leaf type and persistence: deciduous
  • Leaf blade length: 4 to 8 inches; 2 to 4 inches
  • Leaf color: green
  • Fall color: copper; red
  • Fall characteristic: showy

Trunk and Branches Can Be a Problem

Leaves sprouting on a distressed Pin Oak tree.

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  • Trunk/bark/branches: bark is thin and easily damaged from mechanical impact; droop as the tree grows and will require pruning for vehicular or pedestrian clearance beneath the canopy; should be grown with a single leader
  • Pruning requirement: needs little pruning to develop a strong structure
  • Breakage: susceptible to breakage either at the crotch due to poor collar formation or the wood itself is weak and tends to break
  • Current year twig color: brown; green
  • Current year twig thickness: thin

Pruning May Be Necessary

A shot looking up at a mature large Pin Oak tree with green leaves.

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Lower branches on a pin oak will require removal when used as a street or parking lot tree as they tend to droop and hang on the tree. The persistent lower branches can be attractive on a roomy large open lawn because of its picturesque habit when open-grown. The trunk is typically straight up through the crown, only occasionally developing a double leader. Prune any double or multiple leaders out as soon as they are recognized with several prunings in the first 15 to 20 years after planting.

Pin Oak Environment

A Pin Oak canopy against a clear blue sky.

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  • Light requirement: tree grows in full sun
  • Soil tolerances: clay; loam; sand; acidic; extended flooding; well-drained
  • Drought tolerance: moderate
  • Aerosol salt tolerance: low
  • Soil salt tolerance: poor

Pin Oak — The Details

Leaves of a Pin Oak tree changing color.

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Pin Oak develops nicely on moist, acid soils and is tolerant of compaction, wet soil, and urban conditions. When grown in acidic soil, pin oak can be a handsome specimen tree. The lower branches tend to droop, middle branches are horizontal and branches in the upper part of the crown grow upright. The straight trunk and small, well-attached branches make Pin Oak an extremely safe tree to plant in urban areas.

It is extremely vigorous as far south as USDA hardiness zone 7b but may grow slowly in USDA hardiness zone 8a. It is very sensitive to soil pH above the high 6’s. It is water tolerant and is native to stream banks and flood plains.

Pin Oak grows well in areas where water stands for several weeks at a time. One of the adaptive mechanisms of Pin Oak is a fibrous, shallow root system which allows it to tolerate flooded soil conditions. But as with any other tree, do not plant it in standing water or allow water to stand around the roots until the tree has become established in the landscape. Several years are needed after transplanting for the tree to develop this type of adaptive root system, and subjecting it to flooding too early could kill it. Plant trees in a slightly raised mound or bed if the soil is poorly drained.