Massive old southern live oaks draped with Spanish moss and long oak alleys leading to grand plantation homes are two signature images of the old South. The magnificent oaks inspire not just awe, but offer a sense of place and connection to history.
Live oaks, Quercus virginiana, are native along the southeastern coastal plain from Virginia south to Florida and west to Texas. They favor the warm humid conditions along the coast and tolerate winter’s brief cold.
The oaks grow well in acidic, sandy soil and heavier clay loam as long as it provides good drainage. Although they become drought-tolerant after they are established, they fare better when heat is accompanied by moisture. They can handle brief freshwater flooding but, again, must have good drainage. Close to the coast, the trees’ waxy leaves tolerate some salt spray.
Historically, live oaks are a valuable timber species. They are the heaviest native hardwood, weighing 50 pounds per cubic foot. The wood is resistant to weather, water and structural stress. These qualities put the wood in great demand for building naval ships in the 1700s and 1800s. During that time, loggers, carpenters and timber pirates ravaged the Atlantic coast’s old-growth forests for live oaks that could be used for shipbuilding. Unfortunately, a huge number of trees had been taken from private and public land by 1870 when shipbuilding materials changed from wood to iron.
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Live oak trees typically reach 40 to 65 feet tall with a relatively short stout stem that grows 4 to 6 feet in diameter. The crown can extend 80 to 110 feet in diameter. The canopy is broad in relation to the height of the tree. Long horizontal limbs on an old tree may be so heavy that they rest on the ground to support their weight. A live oak’s low, broad proportions help the trees endure coastal storms.
Today, modern live oak varieties are available from nurseries for residential, commercial and institutional landscapes. Nursery-raised cultivars produce a consistent shape and size.
HiRise Oak was the first patented oak tree. It was cloned from a tree in Orangeburg. It is considerably taller than its breadth. It has a pyramidal habit with a mature height of 30 to 40 feet and spread of only 12 to 18 feet. That makes it suitable for privacy between homes, narrow spaces, entry ways, lining a driveway and other areas where space is limited.
Cathedral Oak develops a full, dense canopy. Its habit is pyramidal when young but spreads as it matures without sprawling the way a standard live oak does. It is an excellent shade tree that lends itself to commercial and institutional landscaping or to use on a large residential property. It matures at 40 to 80 feet tall with a canopy of 60 to 120 feet.
Millennium Oak grows to a mature height of 50 to 75 feet and spread of 60 to 100 feet. Its growth and habit are similar to that of a native live oak.
Young trees need early pruning to establish a central leader and strong scaffold. They grow quickly when young, about 2 1/2 feet per year, but more slowly as they mature. With proper care, live oaks can be expected to live about 250 years.
Live oaks replace their leaves during a short two to three weeks each spring. While some old, dark green leaves remain, new bright olive green leaves appear. Each oak produces hanging clusters of male catkins, which release large amounts of olive green pollen and insignificant female flowers, which mature into acorns. The effect is ever green, the reason the trees are called live oaks.
The tree’s leaves are alternate on long twigs, unlobed, smooth edged and elongated – entirely different from the familiar lobed or deeply cut leaves on many deciduous oaks.
Like other trees, live oaks are subject to disease and insect pests. Although a few pests can cause serious damage, most insect problems are consequent to abiotic conditions like cold, summer drought, poor drainage and construction damage. Stress renders trees more susceptible to secondary problems. For more information, Google Clemson hgic 2006, Oak Diseases and Insect Pests.
Beyond Conway and Brookgreen Gardens, visit the Champion Oak in Georgetown, Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant, Middleton Oak in Charleston, Angel Oak on Johns Island and drive the dirt road to Botany Bay on Edisto Island.