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Mississippi, Writing

The live oak in Southern cities and culture

In this installment of our ongoing series, we visit some of the great Southern cities to understand the role of the Southern live oak in urban design and Southern culture.

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Live Oaks in Audubon Park, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo: Tim Bekaert)

The Southern live oak provides cover and shade not only for jays and squirrels, but for humans as well. Although prevalent across a wide area, its most iconic presence is in the great cities of the South. Live oaks shade the squares of Savannah, the streets of Charleston, and the magnificent avenues of New Orleans. For example, St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, called “The Jewel of America’s Grand Avenues,” is known as much for its oak-shaded streetcar lines as for its grand antebellum mansions (1).

The Southern live oak’s distinctive shape makes it a valuable urban architectural element. It has a “broad crown, with long arching limbs that spread horizontally rather than vertically,” creating large areas of inviting shade (2, 3).  Its hard, strong wood, once highly prized for shipbuilding, makes it highly durable. Due to its appeal, it is estimated that “a single live oak can add as much as $30,000 to the value of a house” (4).

“In Southern history, live oaks were landmarks where people met to socialize and conduct business,” says Tova Spector of the University of Florida (5). “In the opening scene of “Gone with the Wind,” Scarlett O’Hara flirts with bachelors under live oaks at a barbecue. Similarly, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings ends her book “The Yearling” with the hero saying goodbye to his childhood under the live oak trees” (6). For many people, the live oak – with the mistletoe and Spanish moss that often grow on its limbs – is deeply associated with the image of the South.

Live oaks in Oak Alley Plantation, Vacheria, Louisiana. (Photo: Tim Bekaert)

Live oaks in the famous Oak Alley Plantation, Vacheria, Louisiana. Found in many estates along the Mississippi River, tree alleys help bring cool breezes up to the main house. (Photo: Tim Bekaert)

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Previous: A description of the Southern live oak.

Next: Hurricane Katrina and the Southern live oak.

References:

  1. New Orleans Online
  2. Physorg
  3. University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
  4. Physorg
  5. University of Florida, Department of Botany
  6. Physorg
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  1. Pingback: Hurricane Katrina and the Southern live oak « Southern Live Oak - July 24, 2009

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