The live oak is a majestic symbol of strength, stability and steadfastness, and it’s hard to imagine Louisiana without them.
These tree are so special they have their own organization — The Live Oak Society.
To be clear, the trees are the members.
With his poem “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing” written in the late 1800s, Walt Whitman inspired Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens to start The Live Oak Society in 1934.
Stephens, the first president of Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), created the society to promote the culture, distribution, preservation and appreciation of the live oak tree, scientifically known as Quercus virginiana.
Stephen chose 43 trees for the first members. Today, the society boasts 9,339 members in 14 states and is under the auspices of the Louisiana Garden Club Federation.
Only one person is permitted in the Live Oak Society, according to its bylaws.
And the job of chairperson today belongs to Coleen Perilloux Landry, who is responsible for registering and recording new trees into the society.
Since becoming chairperson in 2000, Landry has registered over 3,767 oaks. Each tree, Landry said, is named by its owner. There is no charge for registration, but the society accepts donations.
“If we don’t start preserving our ancient live oaks in Louisiana, we are going to lose some beauty that will never come back,” she said.
And there have been losses, due to age and environmental causes.
In fact, the first president of the society, the Locke Breaux oak tree in Taft, died in 1968 from air and groundwater pollution.
Its successor and current president is the Seven Sisters oak, formerly known as Dody’s Seven Sisters, in the Lewisburg area of Mandeville, two blocks from Lake Pontchartrain.
The oak, which has a circumference of 38 feet and is the largest specimen in Louisiana, was first named by owner Carole Hendry Dody, who was one of seven sisters. Now owned by Mary Jane and John Becker, the oak is estimated by foresters to be 1,200 years old.
To become a member, a live oak must have a trunk circumference of 8 feet or more. Those with a girth over 16 feet are classified as centenarians.
To see some of these living monuments, consider taking the self-guided Lafourche Live Oak Tour supported by the Bayou Lafourche Convention and Visitors Bureau.
More than 400 live oaks in Lafourche Parish have been registered with the Live Oak Society as notable oaks, and some featured on the tour were growing along Bayou Lafourche before Columbus set foot on the continent.
Photographer and author William Guion, who has been photographing Louisiana live oak trees for over 35 years, documented the trees for the tour.
“The tour gives a short bio and history about each tree and the people who may have lived on the property and planted them,” he said, adding, “So many of our old oaks in Louisiana are dying out. There are very few of the pre-European trees around, probably less than 20.”
Guion said that through the tour he hopes to raise awareness about the importance of conservation and preservation of historic live oak trees as a critical cultural and historic resource.
There's no particular route for the tour, and the trees are numbered from north to south along the bayou, beginning at the E.D. White Memorial Home, 6.2 miles north of downtown Thibodaux. Most of the trees are located on private property but can be safely viewed from the roadside.
Author Doug Tallamy also celebrates the trees in his new book, "The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees."
“Oaks aren’t just any other tree," Tallamy said. "They are the most important tree.”
Oak trees support 900 species of caterpillars and are considered a keystone species because of all the food they supply in a local ecosystem.
Tallamy writes that oak trees are “the most powerful plant you can have in your yard.”
Books by William Guion: "Heartwood, Meditations on Southern Oaks" (Bulfinch/Little Brown Press); "Heartwood, Further Meditations on Oaks" (Blue Oak Press); "Quercus Louisiana — the Splendid Live Oaks of Louisiana" (self-published)
Louisiana Live Oak Society, lgcfinc.org/live-oak-society.html
Chairperson Coleen Perilloux Landry, CPL70600@aol.com
Louisiana Master Naturalists of Greater Baton Rouge seeks to advance awareness, understanding and stewardship of the natural environment. For more information, email email@example.com