One of the pre-eminent hardwoods native to eastern North America. Typically reaching 65 to 85 feet at maturity, it becomes quite massive and its lower branches are apt to extend far out laterally, parallel to the ground. Bark is light gray, varying to dark gray and to white; shallow fissured and scaly. Branchlets at first bright green, later reddish-green and finally light gray. A distinguishing feature of this tree is that a little over half way up the trunk the bark tends to form overlapping scales that are easily noticed and aid in identification. Leaves are alternate, five to nine inches long, three to four inches wide. Obovate or oblong, seven to nine-lobed, usually seven-lobed with rounded lobes and rounded sinuses; lobes destitute of bristles; sinuses sometimes deep, sometimes shallow. On young trees the leaves are often repand. They come out of the bud conduplicate, are bright red above, pale below, and covered with white tomentum; the red fades quickly and they become silvery greenish white and shiny; when full grown they are thin, bright yellow green, shiny or dull above, pale, glaucous or smooth below; the midrib is stout and yellow, primary veins are conspicuous. In late autumn the leaves turn a deep red and drop, or on young trees remain on the branches throughout the winter. Petioles are short, stout, grooved, and flattened. Stipules are linear and caducous.
May be found on ridges, in valleys, and in between, in dry and moist habitats, and in moderately acid and alkaline soils. It is mainly a lowland tree, but reaches altitudes of 5,249 ft in the Appalachian Mountains.