The tree has various names, depending where you live in the southern United States. Water Oak is the most popular around here. They’re also known as Spotted Oaks, Duck Oaks, Orange Oaks, Punk Oaks and the somehow appropriate Possum Oak. It may get that name from the holes and hollows left from where the tree’s limbs fall off and create convenient hiding places for a certain marsupial. The Spotted Oak name probably came from the tree’s youth - when they are around six inches in diameter their bark is indeed spotted, with curious white, black, green, yellow and grey splotches. They grow out of this phase to become solid grey like their cousin, the sturdy Live Oak. The moniker Punk Oak works pretty well, given their reputation for being degenerates and causing trouble.
The tree’s stiff, spatula-shaped leaves are two-toned, dull green on top and pale underneath. Sometimes these leaf bottoms get infested with tiny wasps that sting the leaf when they are young and tender and cause them to respond by growing a small, tan, fluffy pom-pom in which the wasp’s babies grow all summer by sucking up some of the tree’s juices.
The tree is pretty indiscriminate where it chooses to grow, accepting both poorly drained clay soils in bottomland and well-drained sandy soils. They are very prolific, spewing forth thousands of acorns that start thousands of scraggly little, misshapen saplings in the crowded woods that have little chance of achieving anything near magnificence.
All those acorns also make them a favorite part of the diet of deer, squirrels, raccoons, turkeys, ducks and quail. One of the reasons the tree pops up all over the woods is Mr. and Mrs. Squirrel do it the favor of burying up to a thousand of these seeds then fail to return to eat them before nature takes its course.