The Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muhlenbergii) is an oak in the white oak group (Quercus sect. Quercus). It is native to eastern North America, from Vermont and southern Ontario west to Iowa, south to northwest Florida and eastern Texas, with disjunct populations in west Texas and southeast New Mexico, and eastern Mexico from Coahuila south to Hidalgo. It is occasionally seen outside its native range with examples at Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Raleigh, North Carolina and Lake Worth, Florida.
It is a deciduous tree reaching 30 m tall (exceptionally up to 50 m), with a rounded crown and thin, scaly or flaky bark on the trunk. The name comes from the resemblance of the leaves to those of a chestnut or chinkapin, although they also greatly resemble the chestnut oak or swamp chestnut oak; coarsely toothed, 5-15 cm long and 4-8 cm broad. The acorns are 1.5-2 cm long, and mature in about 6 months after pollination.
The scientific name honors Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg (1753–1815), a Lutheran pastor and amateur botanist in Pennsylvania. Because the name may be spelled "Mühlenberg" with an umlaut over the "u", the scientific name is commonly spelled muehlenbergii. The Flora of North America, however, uses the spelling muhlenbergii.
Chinkapin oak is closely related to the smaller but generally similar dwarf chinkapin oak (Quercus prinoides). Besides the differences in size, the two species can be distinguished by their typical habitat: chinkapin oak is typically found on calcareous soils and rocky slopes while dwarf chinkapin oak is more likely to be found on sandy soils. Although these two oaks are generally regarded as separate species, they are sometimes considered to belong to the same species. Interestingly, when the two are considered to be conspecific, the larger chinkapin oak is often identified as a variety of dwarf chinkapin oak (as Quercus prinoides var. acuminata) because the later was described first.
Chinkapin oak is also sometimes confused with the related chestnut oak. However, unlike the pointed teeth on the leaves of the chinkapin oak, the chestnut oak generally has rounded teeth. Unfortunately, this distinction is often not readily apparent. A more reliable means of distinguishing the two is by the bark. Chinkapin oak has a gray, flaky bark very similar to white oak but with a more yellow-brown cast to it, hence the occasional name yellow oak. Chestnut oak has dark, solid, deeply ridged bark that is very different. The chinkapin oak also has smaller acorns than the chestnut or swamp chestnut oaks, which have some of the largest.
The Chinkapin Oak is especially known for its sweet acorns. Indeed, the nuts contained inside of the thin shell are among the sweetest of any oak; they taste excellent even when eatern raw. These acorns provide an excellent source of food for both wildlife and people. Like the other members of the white oak family, the wood of the Chinkapin oak is a durable hardwood prized for many types of construction.