The chinquapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) is a common tree in central Indiana, particularly on well-drained, calcium-rich soils. The leaves differ from most other oaks in that they have toothed margins rather than deep lobes. The only other oak common in central Indiana having this characteristic is swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor). Swamp white oak, however, tends to have larger and fewer teeth than chinquapin oak.
Chinquapin oak leaves are typically 4 to 7 inches long with seven to 15 pairs of teeth. Their width can vary dramatically from less than an inch wide to more than 3 inches wide. Shaded saplings tend to have larger leaves than mature trees. The leaves are dark green and shiny above with much paler lower surfaces.
The bark is light gray, typically the palest of all of our native oak species. It is flaky on the branches and trunks of small trees, becoming deeply furrowed on large old specimens.
Chinquapin oak is a member of the white oak group. The acorns are small, usually ¾-inch long or smaller. They have the lowest tannin content of any of our native oaks, making them among the sweetest and most palatable. These acorns are heavily favored by wildlife, including squirrels, deer, wild turkeys, woodpeckers, mallards, wood ducks and blue jays. Heavy crops of acorns are produced every two or three years. In good acorn years, ducks are often seen congregating where chinquapin oaks grow along rivers. They were so heavily favored by the now extinct passenger pigeon that the trees were formerly referred to as pigeon oaks.
These trees are an indicator of soils rich in calcium and having a high pH. In central Indiana, favorable soils composed of calcareous outwash occur along rivers and streams. Chinquapin oak is a common and characteristic species of the bluffs along White River and are easily seen at Mounds State Park. A consistent associate that also favors these bluffs is blue ash. They also occur on well-drained floodplain terraces composed of outwash sand and gravel. On floodplains, they associate with bur oak, Shumard oak, black maple, black walnut, shellbark hickory and hackberry. In southern Indiana, chinquapin oak is characteristic of thin soils over limestone with some of the same associates including blue ash and Shumard oak.
The wood of chinquapin oak is hard, strong and durable. It is very similar to white oak and typically not distinguished from it for commercial purposes. In deep fertile soils, chinquapin oak can grow to impressive proportions and live for centuries. A stump of a large tree that was cut for lumber in the 1990s near Mounds State Park was 5 feet across and yielded 315 annual growth rings. One can imagine that passenger pigeons roosted in its branches during the first two centuries of its life.