Few trees are more evocative of the Lowcountry than live oaks, with their graceful, spreading branches draped with garlands of Spanish moss.
The name “live oak” refers to the tree’s distinctive feature of retaining its leaves throughout the winter, in contrast to the deciduous oaks of the Northeast and Midwest.
Although live oaks stay green year-round, they do drop their older leaves gradually in the spring as new ones are produced. The stiff, leathery leaves lack the prominent lobes characteristic of many other oaks.
Actually, there are several dozen species of evergreen oaks found throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Ours is Quercus virginiana (Southern or Virginia live oak), common throughout the coastal Southeast from Virginia to Texas.
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In the Lowcountry, live oaks are common in coastal areas due to their tolerance of salt spray, sandy soil and high salinity, but they also grow in moist woodlands and along the banks of streams.
As Hurricane Matthew has recently demonstrated, live oaks aren’t immune to damage from severe storms, but compared to pines, they’re more wind-resistant due to their spreading growing form and relatively low center of gravity.
Because of the strength and high density of their wood, the trees were once used extensively for shipbuilding. Live oak wood was a major structural component of The USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”), both during its original construction and in its later restoration.
In the spring, live oaks produce clusters of inconspicuous, wind-pollinated, staminate (“male”) and pistillate (“female”) flowers, both types on the same tree.
And as in other oaks, the fruits are acorns, produced in late summer, some years in huge numbers. They’re eaten by wild turkeys, jays, wood ducks, deer, squirrels and raccoons.
As a human food source, acorns require some processing before they’re palatable. Otherwise, their high tannin content makes them bitter and even toxic if eaten in large quantities.
The large canopies of live oaks provide cover and nest sites for a variety of birds and mammals, and their large, sprawling branches support dense colonies of mosses and resurrection ferns.
Probably the most familiar plant associate of live oaks is Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), which is actually a flowering plant in the same family as pineapples. Spanish moss manufactures its own food via photosynthesis and uses oak branches mainly for support, also soaking up rainwater and various minerals leached out from the tree.
Live oaks can attain huge dimensions and impressive ages. Mature trees can reach heights of 60 to 80 feet and develop magnificent crowns 60 to 120 feet across. They can also grow to be hundreds of years old.
In Harbour Town, for example, the Liberty Oak, under which Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser is buried, is some 300 years old. In Hilton Head Plantation, the Talbird Oak also dates back to the 1700s. The Cherry Hill Plantation oak, in Beaufort, is estimated at 350 to 450 years.
And the majestic Angel Oak, near Charleston, may be 500 years old, perhaps even older.
Vicky McMillan, a retired biologist formerly at Colgate University,lives on Hilton Head Island. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.