Live oaks have a strong history in the Gulf south. They produce wood that is close-grained, hard and durable and is one of the heaviest woods that grows natively in America.
This wood is so durable it was used to build warships for the U.S. Navy. In 1795, according to the Gulf Islands National Park Service, the USS Constitution’s inner hull was built from live oak lumber. Its proven resilience in the War of 1812 earned it the nickname “Old Ironsides.”
The first national tree farm was established in Pensacola, Florida, by President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of the Navy Samuel S. Southland for growing trees that would be used to build and maintain warships. The areas, called live oak tree reservations, are national parks today. Close to us is the Naval Live Oaks Reservation in Pensacola. Metal began to replace wood after the Civil War.
Today, oaks still hold an iconic status for resilience. After devastating hurricanes and floods, live oaks often are among the few trees that remain standing.
Live oak (Quercus virginiana) is a very large, slow-growing, long-lived tree. The largest live oak specimen in Louisiana, the Seven Sisters Oak, is in Mandeville. It has a whopping spread of 132 feet and a trunk 37 feet in diameter. One of the oldest live oaks in the South, the Angel oak, is located in Charleston and is thought to be between 400 and 600 years old.
Many of the plantations in the South and especially in Louisiana date to before the Civil War and have alleyways lined with oak trees that still live today.
William Guion, a natural landscape photographer, wrote "Quercus Louisiana: The Splendid Live Oaks of Louisiana." In the book, he references Edwin Lewis Stephens, the first president of what's now called the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Stephens created the Live Oak Society and was responsible for planting oak seedlings at the Lafayette intersection of University Avenue and Johnston Street known as the Century Oaks. He believed the live oak should have been named Quercus louisiana, not virginiana because of vast number of live oaks found in this state.
A slight controversy surrounds the live oak: Is it deciduous? Is it evergreen? Is it semi-evergreen or semi-deciduous? Consult reference books, and you will find it called all of those things.
Live oaks do keep their leaves year-round, except for a short couple of weeks in late winter or early spring when they shed all of their leaves and then re-grow their entire canopy.
Simultaneously, as the leaves fall, live oaks produce male flowers called catkins, which create copious amounts of pollen, that yellow-green powder that coats our cars and houses and creates headaches for allergy sufferers.
The flowers then die back, turn brown and fall to the ground, releasing yet another assault on the ground and surrounding area. The leaves make a great mulch, so rake them up and put them in your compost or recycle them for mulch.
The best time to plant live oaks in fall or winter. Rule No. 1: They need lots of room.
The trees have a massive surface root system, so be sure to plant far away from houses, sidewalks and driveways. The root systems can break foundations as well as concrete sidewalks and driveways. Additionally, live oaks can grow to a substantial height, so also consider overhead power lines.
Another gorgeous characteristic of live oaks is their low, sweeping branches that sometimes touch the ground — something else to keep in mind when planting. Try to plant away from streets so you won't have to trim low-growing branches, forcing the trees to grow in an upright, unnatural way.
When they are full-grown, live oaks will create a great deal of shade, which is bad news for plants and turfgrass growing below. St. Augustine and centipede turfgrass are the most shade tolerant. That shade can also help lower cooling costs in the summer.
Live oaks do not require much maintenance. Small trees will take years, maybe your lifetime, to grow to their full potential. It is a wonderful thought to consider leaving a legacy of such a fine oak to be enjoyed in your family generation after generation.