Earlier this week, the advancing season combined with rainfall and blustery winds pretty much left our countryside with mostly bare, naked trees.

There are foliage die-hards out there, however. Some don't give up their leaves without a fight. Most of those stubbornly clinging to their now-brown, long-dead foliage are our red oaks, the stalwarts of our timberlands.

There is a smattering of species that botanists classify of the red oak group, a collection of trees with similar characteristics. (The other side of that coin is the white oak group.) The poster tree of the red oak group, however, the real face of the Quercus genus would have to be the northern red oak.

This is the most common large oak across all North America, and certainly it is the routine oak of Kentucky, found throughout the state and consistently in greater numbers than other oak species.

Cousins in the same group include pin oaks, black oaks, southern red oaks, shingle oaks and scarlet oaks. But you look across a field and see a still-leafy tree on the horizon or drive down an old boulevard with looming, old oaks lining the street, chances are you'll be noting northern red oaks.

The northern red oak grows to be a big, hulking tree -- up to maybe 75 feet tall with a canopy spread that can equal its height. Unless done in early by some disease, a lightning strike or a chainsaw, the red oak is often a long-lived tree. A century is not a stretch for the species.

They can be recognized through traits seen in their leaves, acorns and bark. Northern red oak leaves are large, 6-7 inches long, deeply lobed with a pointy tip on each of the individual lobe fingers. (All the red oaks have pointy-lobed leaves; white oak leaves have smooth, rounded lobes.)

Northern red oak leaves, when green, are dark on the upper surface and pale green on the underside. In the fall, they stay green longer than many species, and when they turn, they give way to a russet brown.

As noted, northern red oaks are some of the last to shed their leaves. Some individual trees retain some of their dead, browned foliage right up until the next year's crop is nearly ready to start growing.

Anyone trying to hide in a tree stand while hunting late in the fall and winter appreciates a northern red oak that keeps some leaves and provides a bit of camouflaging cover.

Northern red oak acorns are whopping big tree seeds, fat and about an inch long. Each grows with a shallow, beanie-like cap that often stays attached when the acorn drops to the ground in autumn.

Red oak acorns are an important wildlife food, but there are a couple of asterisks that must go along with that thought. These oak nuts are higher in tannic acid than those of other species, the white oak acorns, and are more bitter to the taste.

These acorns, too, have a harder shell than white oak acorns. Although each red oak acorn has a relatively good amount of nut meat, it takes a bit more effort to get to the good stuff through that thicker, harder exterior.

Wildlife tends to favor other acorns when they first drop, often neglecting abundant red oak acorns lying there. But two things happen over a period of weeks: When sweeter white oak acorns are available, critters use them up at a quick clip. Meanwhile, the tannic acid in northern red oak acorns fades, either through a leaching process or simple aging.

The result is that the dessert-quality acorns disappear. The beans-and-taters sort of northern red oak acorns are still out there in relative abundance, and with the tannin level down, danged if they don't start tasting pretty good.

By winter, the northern red seeds at which squirrels, deer and other creatures turned up their noses earlier move up to prominent spots on the menu.

Even though white oak acorns are the darlings of the wildlife food scene, these trees are hit and miss -- more often miss than hit -- about acorn production. White oaks more frequently have years when most trees yield few or even no acorns at all.

The red oak group led by northern reds, meanwhile, tends to put out at least a moderate crop of acorns every year. No doubt, all the varmints rave about those sweet white oak acorns, but at crunch time, when it comes to red oak forage or rumbling bellies, the fruit of the red oaks support a great many critter lives.

With most of the leaves thinned or gone off the trees nowadays, we get a better look at the woody part of our woodlots. That bark on our northern red oaks is another part of their identity. It's dark and deeply furrowed.

The bark on northern reds is like others of the same group but set apart from that of most white oaks at a glance. White oak bark is much lighter -- and softer to the touch. (Climbing a northern red oak is like wrestling a wood rasp. That hard bark eats skin.)

Our forests are identified as oak-hickory hardwoods, and the northern red oak is the prominent character in that mix. Long may it shade us, feed our wildlife and house our squirrels and 'coons.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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