Oaks have spirally arranged leaves, with lobate margins in many species; some have serrated leaves or entire leaves with smooth margins. Many deciduous species are marcescent, not dropping dead leaves until spring. In spring, a single oak tree produces both male flowers (in the form of catkins) and small female flowers. The fruit is a nut called an acorn or oak nut borne in a cup-like structure known as a cupule; each acorn contains one seed (rarely two or three) and takes 6–18 months to mature, depending on their species. The acorns and leaves contain tannic acid, which helps to guard from fungi and insects. The live oaks are distinguished for being evergreen, but are not actually a distinct group and instead are dispersed across the genus.
Interspecific hybridization is quite common among oaks, but usually between species within the same section only, and most common in the white oak group. White oaks are unable to discriminate against pollination by other species in the same section. Because they are wind pollinated and they have weak internal barriers to hybridization, hybridization produces functional seeds and fertile hybrid offspring. Ecological stresses, especially near habitat margins, can also cause a breakdown of mate recognition as well as a reduction of male function (pollen quantity and quality) in one parent species.
Barrels in which wines, sherry, and spirits such as brandy, Irish whiskey, Scotch whisky and Bourbon whiskey are aged are made from European and American oak, with single barrel whiskey fetching a premium. The use of oak in wine can add many different dimensions to wine based on the type and style of the oak. Oak barrels, which may be charred before use, contribute to the colour, taste, and aroma of the contents, imparting a desirable oaky vanillin flavour to these drinks. The great dilemma for wine producers is to choose between French and American oakwoods. French oaks (Quercus robur, Q. petraea) give the wine greater refinement and are chosen for the best wines since they increase the price compared to those aged in American oak wood. American oak contributes greater texture and resistance to ageing, but produces more powerful wine bouquets. Oak wood chips are used for smoking fish, meat, cheeses, and other foods.
Of the North American oaks, the northern red oak is one of the most prized of the red oak group for lumber, much of which is marketed as red oak regardless of the species of origin. It is not good for outdoor use due to its open capillaries unless the wood is treated. If the wood is properly treated with preservatives, it will not rot as quickly as cured white oak heartwood. The closed cell structure of white oaks prevents them from absorbing preservatives. With northern red oak, one can blow air through an end grain piece 10 inches long to make bubbles come out in a glass of water. These openings give fungus easy access when the finish deteriorates. Shumard oak, a member of the red oak subgenus, provides timber which is described as "mechanically superior" to northern red oak. Cherrybark oak is another type of red oak which provides excellent timber.
Many species of oaks are under threat of extinction in the wild, largely due to land use changes, livestock grazing and unsustainable harvesting. For example, over the past 200 years, large areas of oak forest in the highlands of Mexico, Central America and the northern Andes have been cleared for coffee plantations and cattle ranching. There is a continuing threat to these forests from exploitation for timber, fuelwood and charcoal. In the USA, entire oak ecosystems have declined due to a combination of factors still imperfectly known, but thought to include fire suppression, increased consumption of acorns by growing mammal populations, herbivory of seedlings, and introduced pests. In a recent survey, 78 wild oak species have been identified as being in danger of extinction, from a global total of over 500 species. The proportion under threat may be much higher in reality, as there is insufficient information about over 300 species, making it near impossible to form any judgement of their status.
The leaves and acorns of the oak tree are poisonous to cattle, horses, sheep, and goats in large amounts due to the toxin tannic acid, and cause kidney damage and gastroenteritis. Symptoms of poisoning include lack of appetite, depression, constipation, diarrhea (which may contain blood), blood in urine, and colic. The exception to livestock and oak toxicity is the domestic pig, which may be fed entirely on acorns in the right conditions, and has traditionally been pastured in oak woodlands (such as the Spanish dehesa and the English system of pannage) for hundreds of years.
Iowa designated the oak as its official state tree in 1961; and the white oak is the state tree of Connecticut, Illinois and Maryland. The northern red oak is the provincial tree of Prince Edward Island, as well as the state tree of New Jersey. The live oak is the state tree of the US state of Georgia.