The Southern live oak (quercus virginiana) is a subevergreen oak tree native to coastal areas, ranging from tidewater Virginia south to Florida and west along the Gulf Coast as far as Texas. Live oaks can live for many centuries and grow into massive trees, the wizened elders of the coastal lowlands. They stand sentinel over the Gulf Coast, their twisted branches and gnarled trunks witness to countless storms. The live oak’s massive, spreading branches fight a courageous battle against the force of gravity and, with great age, gracefully droop to rest upon the ground. For their neighbors, the Southern live oaks are symbols of strength, beauty, and hope.
Quercus virginiana (from the Latin quercus, oak tree, and virginiana, of Virginia) is a common sight in coastal areas of the southeastern United States. It thrives in habitats such as coastal plains, woodlands, hills, and even sometimes sand beaches (1). Able to withstand salt spray, heavy rain, hurricane force winds, and short periods of flooding, it is well-adapted for these coastal environments (2). Because it is easily damaged by frost, the Southern live oak restricts itself to areas where the average winter temperature stays above 42° F (3). In these climates, it can keep its leaves nearly year-round, shedding and quickly re-growing them in early spring (4).
Live oak is characterized by its dark brown, furrowed bark, small, tapered acorns, and small, leathery, oblong or elliptical leaves (5, 6). Mature live oaks can reach over 50 feet high and over 150 feet in diameter and can live for many centuries (7). However, the age of live trees is difficult to determine. The Angel Oak, near Charleston, South Carolina, is “often called the oldest living thing in the U.S. east of the Mississippi… [estimated at] over 1,500 years old,” writes Tim Bekaert, but “the second is almost certainly an exaggeration… an age of less than 600 years [is] more likely” (8). Even so, the Angel Oak would have been nearly a century old when Columbus first visited the Americas.
Live oak is a dominant species in many coastal ecosystems. “[It] provides cover and shade for a wide variety of coastal species of birds and mammals. Acorns of live oak are an important food source for the Florida scrub jay, mallards, sapsuckers, wild turkey, black bear, squirrels and white-tail deer. Scrub jays, a threatened species, nest in live oak. Epiphytes of live oak include mistletoe, ball moss and Spanish moss. Spanish moss can be especially populous in live oak” (9).
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 (10).
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 (11, 12). 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” (13).
“In Southern history, live oaks were landmarks where people met to socialize and conduct business,” says Tova Spector of the University of Florida (14). “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” (15). Today, the Live Oak Society has 6,103 members — all but one of them oaks (16). 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.
The Southern live oaks that line the Gulf Coast have weathered multiple hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall on the coast on August 29, 2005, was the worst storm to hit Mississippi since 1969’s Hurricane Camille (17).
For Mississippians returning after Katrina to find their homes damaged or destroyed, the battered condition of the live oaks was a psychological blow. Hardy as they are, the oaks had been subjected to severe stress. Prolonged saltwater inundation had poisoned their roots and high winds and debris had damaged their branches. A September 8, 2005 National Public Radio segment captured the uncertainty about the fate of many ailing live oaks, uncertainty that would last for months and even years (18).
And yet, many of the live oaks survived. Shelia White of the University of Southern Mississippi writes of her joy upon discovering that the Friendship Oak, a fixture of the university’s Gulf Park campus, had endured through Katrina (19). At over 500 years old, the Friendship Oak has given shade and shelter to generations of students and faculty at USM.
Most of the surviving oaks have made a full recovery: their foliage is green year-round, they are hung with Spanish moss, and their sturdy branches are beginning to grow once again. For the Gulf Coast community, these great oaks have come to symbolize the coast’s survival and slow but steady recovery after Hurricane Katrina.
Some Southern live oaks that did not survive Hurricane Katrina have been reborn as art. In Biloxi, artists Dayton Scoggins and Marlin Miller took up the task of converting over 20 dead trees, mostly along Beach Boulevard, into sculptures celebrating coastal wildlife: pelicans, eagles, seahorses, whales, dolphins, swordfish, and more. The sculptures have been featured on MSNBC and elsewhere and are one of the top attractions on the coast. (The City of Biloxi has pictures and video here) (20).
And so the live oak continues to be a deep-rooted part of Southern culture and character — one that, like the Gulf Coast, will endure and continue to grow.
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