Monday, March 25, 2013

When do Red Oak Leaves Drop

Red Oaks (Quescus spp.) are one of the few deciduous trees in MN that hold onto to their leaves throughout the winter.  So when do they drop them?  The short answer is "In the spring".  But I'm curious and would like to know with a bit more precision, so I intend to keep an eye on a couple of Red Oaks in the following weeks to get more details.
Another related question is "Why do Red Oaks hold their leaves through the winter."  It could be that the leaves provide some protection for the buds against the cold.  Or the leaves drop in the spring to suppress the germination of other seedlings.  Or so they can provide a compost layer in the spring when it's most useful to the tree.  I'm not entirely convinced of any of these ideas.

An idea I like better is that the Red Oaks are somewhere in the middle in the evolution of the deciduousness (probably not a word, but I like it, sorry).  All trees loss leaves, just some do it more gradually, namely the confers (except Tamaracks, which are deciduous conifers).  The deciduous life style is a a relatively recent development in terms of the evolution of plants.  Perhaps the Red Oaks exhibit an intermediate form of it, somewhere between the more ancient conifers, and the rest of the relatively newer deciduous flowering trees.
The habitat of holding onto dead leaves, or other withered parts is termed marcescence.  The related American Beech (Fagus grandifolia, both in the Beech family, Fagaceae) also show marcescence.  Ironwoods (Ostyra virginiana) are also marcescent, but unrelated, being in the Birch family, Betulaceae.


  1. Is it correct to assume that leaves fall because the tree has sucked all of the moisture or nutrition out of them?

  2. Thanks for the comment. Trees do absorb the nutrients out of the leaves before they drop, but the reason they drop them is because leaves lose moisture. Since the ground is frozen in the winter, trees can't replace the lost water.

  3. Thanks for this information. Fascinating.

  4. I would like to know if it's possible to use one of your photos with appropriate credit for a nature publication in Québec. The picture I am interested in is oak leaves in winter: IMG_3337.jpg. The name of the magazine is: Nature Sauvage. The link to this magazine is:
    I write short paragraphs on different topics and would like to write about marcescence, for next winter.
    Thank you,
    Michelle Durand