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Live oak: the ultimate southerner.

To think of live oaks is to envision the deep South. Over the years, the spreading branches of Quercus virginiana have symbolized southern culture in movies from Gone with the Wind to Forrest Gump.

A long-lived tree with a life measured in centuries, live oaks are native to the coastal South and can be seen growing in large yards, as specimen trees in parks, along streets, and overhanging the lanes of historic plantations. Georgia claims the live oak as its state tree.

The name derives from foliage that is evergreen through the winter months (except in its northernmost regions} when other deciduous trees stand bare. Given that it grows from the tidewaters of southern Virginia around the Gulf of Mexico to Texas, the live oak is able to tolerate salt spray better than most oaks.

Its wood is hard and strong, drying to a weight of 55 pounds per cubic foot, which puts it among the heaviest of any tree in North America. There is no better wood for fuel or charcoal cooking.

While the species now is used primarily as a landscape or street tree, during colonial times its hard wood made it ideal for the shipbuilding industry. In fact, the U.S. Navy procured large holdings of live oak forests for the exclusive use of government shipyards. The U.S.S. Constitution reportedly received its nickname, "Old Ironsides," during the War of 1812 because its live oak hull was so tough that British war ships' cannon balls literally bounced off it. Because the Constitution was built before shipbuilders learned to bend or steam wood into shape, the live oak's long, arching branches were used as "knees" or braces to connect the ship's hull to its deck floors. The ship was completely restored in the early 1990s, and live oak again was the material of choice in keeping with historical precedent.

Describe a live oak, and you'll probably use the word "massive." The trees grow on short, thick trunks, reaching a height of 40 to 60 feet at maturity. Want shade? The live oak is the broadest-spreading of all oaks. Its large canopy will typically spread to nearly twice its height, which means it can shade an area of more than 100 feet. The trunk can grow anywhere from 3 to more than 6 feet wide. The tree's wow factor lies in its width, rather than its height, with limbs that run horizontally and sometimes sweep the ground under the massive weight.

A moderately fast grower, the live oak adds 2 to 2-1/2 feet of height a year when young, slowing a bit as it ages. Before planting one, make sure you have plenty of space; this is not a tree for a small yard. On streets with no power lines, live oaks can be grown as street trees, but watch our for surface roots that can lift sidewalks as the tree matures.

The leaves actually will drop in the spring just as a new batch of leaves begin to emerge, all in about a two-week period. Individual

leaves can be from 1-1/4 to 3 inches long and up to an inch wide. Narrow and elongated with rounded tips, the leaves have smooth edges and a yellowish vein down the center. New yellowish-green leaves emerge in mid-spring, turning shiny dark green on top and grayish-green and hairy beneath with a leathery texture and oft-curling edges. The leaves serve as host for the larvae of two butterflies, the white hairstreak and the brown duskywing.

Live oaks produce male flowers called catkins that bloom in hanging clusters. Female flowers appear singly or in clusters of one to five where the leaves join the twigs. These give way over the growing season to fairly narrow acorns that are dark brown, almost black, and up to an inch long with caps that cover about a third of their length. Acorns grow either alone or in groups of 3 to 5 on the twigs. The sweet nut within the acorns is coveted by songbirds, ground birds, small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks, and even deer. It is a quick lunch, however, because these acorns will germinate fairly soon after they drop.


It is unusual to find a live oak that does not have many epiphytes or air plants living on it, especially resurrection fern or spanish moss, that lacy, romantic symbol of the South Spanish moss is an epiphyte, or tropical air plant, that requires another plant for mechanical support but not nutrients because it has its own system for producing food. The grayish-silver moss hangs in strands up to 20 feet long, turning greenish-silver after a lot of rain. It is also able to absorb moisture from dew, mist, and fog. Spanish moss is used mostly in decorating and flower arranging, although it once was used in furniture upholstering and for stuffing mattresses. Before bringing it into the house, be sure it's treated with an insect spray and allowed to air out and dry; it may he romantic, but it also has many little bugs and creepy crawlies that you don't want around you.

The resurrection fern is also an air plant. When the weather is dry the fern is gray, scaly, and curled up in wad. But given the moisture from a rainfall, the fronds turn soft and green and unfurl to regain their original shape, hence the name resurrection fern.


The only viable cultivar developed from the live oak in recent years is the High Rise Live Oak. It has a unique pyramidal shape that's half as wide as it is tall. The tree grows to 80 feet tall with a width of perhaps 40 feet and tolerates a bit more cold than other live oaks, with a growing area of zones 5 through 9.

The landscape industry has embraced this tree because, like the species, it is tough, long-lived, and has few pest and disease problems. On the other hand, in my modest view, it ain't the live oak I love and admire. I want a massive canopy with deep shade. I'll bet the Spanish moss agrees with me and avoids this the new live oak in town.


Live oaks grow most successfully in the mild climate of the Deep South (zone 10B). While they grow as far north as the Carolinas and along the coast into Virginia (zone 7B), they are semi-deciduous in these areas. They prefer regions where winter temperatures do not dip lower than 10 degrees F. Their thick, spreading limbs are vulnerable to injury from ice storms in the marginal northern areas of their range.

This is a very low maintenance tree. The only task is stone periodic pruning, which should be handled by a professional arborist. Because the live oak can live for such a long time, it is very important that it develops a proper trunk and branch structure early on. During the first three or four years, make sure the tree has a single stem and branches that don't point to vertically.

To keep your live oak in tiptop shape, have the tree checked and, if necessary, pruned by a pro every five years or so. Dormant or summer pruning is best; avoid pruning in mid-spring to early summer in areas where oak wilt is present.

Live oaks will tolerate some shade, but they appreciate sun. The tree is perfectly at home in sandy soil and even in very compacted soil so long as it is moist. Ideally, the soil should be on the acidic side (pH 4.0 to 6.5).

Live oak is remarkably free of insect and disease problems if healthy and relatively stress-free. In central Texas, however, oak wilt is a major disease problem and some worry that it might somehow move east. Oak wilt is a systemic fungal disease that is spread mostly by insects such as beetles or borers, by man, or even by squirrels. It. enters the tree through wounds in the bark, causing the leaves to turn a sickly bronze, wilt, and fall off. There is, as yet, no reliable treatment, and the tree soon dies. The best control is prompt diagnosis and removal of sick trees. Trees are vulnerable during their spring growth spurt, so as a precaution don't prune healthy trees until after that.

Some years ago I visited friends in New Orleans and learned that mistletoe, that warm and fuzzy symbol of Christmas, can be a major nuisance for live oaks. How can something that can get you kissed be a bad thing? Unlike Spanish moss, mistletoe is a parasite that takes its food from the host tree. If it becomes too abundant, it can seriously weaken the tree.

When birds eat the mistletoe berries and deposit the seeds on other branches or trees, it makes the parasite difficult to control. Break the plant off its branch, but the plant will eventually grow back. Try removing portions of branches that have a large population of this pesky plant.

Another critter that is pesky but usually not lethal is the yellow-bellied sapsucker. This woodpecker relative will drill, chisel, or peck a horizontal line of holes in the bark about 1/8 of an inch deep and one inch apart to suck up some sap. Over time it returns to see if any insects have taken up residence in the holes.

I guess you can't blame the sapsucker. What's not to love about a tree so popular it has its own society? The "Live Oak Society," was founded in 1934 by Dr. Edwin Stephens, a live oak enthusiast and first president of Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana in Lafayette). The Society's membership was made up of trees Stephens identified as being more than 100 years old. The biggest became president, the second-biggest first vice president, and so on. If an officer dies, another candidate is selected by its measurements. The society began with 45 leafy members, but by 2003 this very unusual group boasted more than 4,350 members across 14 states. This somewhat wooden social group is today supervised by the Louisiana Garden Club Federation, Inc. When you have an organization with more than 4,000 members--all older than 100 you certainly deserve some special awe and respect.


Location: near Lewisburg, Louisiana

Circumference at 4.5 feet: 439 in.

Height: 55 feet

Crown spread: 132 feet

Total points: 527

Nominator: John deMarche &

Louisiana Forestry Assn.

The National Register of Big Trees is sponsored by The Davey Tree Expert Company.

(*) a 523-point co-champ resides in Georgia


One day in 1984, my family did something simple that was to change our lives forever: We went on a picnic and came home with an acorn our toddler had picked tip. We didn't know it then, but the tree we sprouted would mark the beginning of AMERICAN FORESTS' Historic Tree program

In retrospect, we couldn't have picked a more fitting tree than the Jacksonville Treaty Live Oak, a favorite of ours. I love live oaks. With a huge trunk and wide-spreading branches often covered with streamers of Spanish moss, this majestic tree is perhaps the species most associated with the deep South.

To me, they're also the closest thing to a time machine that we have. That day as Anne, Forest, and I spread our blanket. I remembered seeing tintypes of families just like ours, spreading their picnic lunch under this same tree 100 years earlier. Although the look of the families had changed, this tree had remained nearly the same.

My love of history has a lot to do with imagination. In my mind's eye that day, I could be transported back in time to the days when members of the Timucuan tribe held council meetings where I now sat. I could picture Ponce de Leon resting under the live oak's branches, or Jean Ribault, France's best seaman and a Huguenot, passing by 50 years later.

Legend has it that many treaties were signed beneath this gargantuan tree. A marker for generation after generation, it survived the Seminole War and the Civil War, and stood witness to the terrible Cleveland Fibre Factory fire of 1901 which destroyed much of Jacksonville.

Humans tend to gravitate, awestruck, to these magnificent markers, and because we do, many occurrences, both notable and mundane, lend to happen beneath them. Trees are living witnesses to history--including the history passed down among generations of our own families.

Perhaps that explains the feeling of widespread mourning that occurred in Austin, Texas, back in 1989 when the Austin Treaty Oak was purposefully poisoned and left for dead. The tree, estimated to be 500 years old, was thought to have been the site of a treaty-signing between Stephen Austin and Indians. Its branches spread over an Austin city block much as the Jacksonville Treaty Oak spreads over our city--bearing witness to generation after generation of local families.

When, in a senseless act of violence, the tree was poisoned with a powerful herbicide, many Texans felt as if a member of their own family had been attacked. As the perpetrator was fined and imprisoned, many groups came to the tree's aid, printing it, fertilizing it, holding vigil. And it worked. More than a decade later, this grand old live oak has struggled its way back to health.

And what of the offspring of Jacksonville's historic live oak that Anne and I germinated and planted in our own yard 17 years ago in honor of our firstborn? The tree stands over 40 feet tall now and is still growing, as is Forest (at left with his dad and the tree), who is headed off to college in San Antonio this fall.

I'm proud that one of my favorite examples of a favorite tree provided the impetus that eventually became the Historic Trees propagation program, in which AMERICAN FORESTS grows descendants from historic trees and offers them for sale to families everywhere. In fact, if it was legal to advertise "Time Machines for Sale," I might do it. All you need is a tree and a little imagination.

Jeff Meyer directs AMERICAN FORESTS' Historic Tree Nursery. To purchase historic trees, visit or call 800/677-0727.

"Yardening" expert Jeff Ball writes from his home in Attica, Michigan.
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Title Annotation:In Profile; includes "Trees Where History Gathered",
Author:Ball, Jeff
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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