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The Southern live oak (Quercus virginiana)

The Southern live oak or simply "Live Oak" (Quercus virginiana) is an evergreen (or nearly so) oak tree native to the southeastern United States. The tree is a common sight in states like Virginia, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana.

While the largest trees in the U.S. in terms of wood volume are a few conifer tree species like the giant sequoia and the coast redwood on the western side of the Rocky Mountains, the Southern Live Oak is the biggest tree species on the eastern side of the Rockies, together with the bald cypress.
The Live Oak is not a very tall species, but has a widespread canopy with heavy branches. Most of the wood is situated in these branches, as opposed to the conifer trees mentioned earlier, where most of the wood is in the (tall) trunk.

Audubon Park, New Orleans

 

The tree shown above is one of the largest Live Oaks in terms of wood volume. Its girth at breast height is 35'2" and has a crown spread of 165' [1]. This tree can be found between the Audubon Zoo and the Exposition Boulevard in Audubon Park, New Orleans, Louisiana.

A view on a few other Live Oaks in Audubon Park. Audubon Park is situated west of the Garden District of New Orleans and is named in honor of artist and naturalist John James Audubon who lived in New Orleans starting in 1821. The land now housing the park was a plantation in colonial days.

 

On the left you can see some typical houses in the Garden District of New Orleans. On the right you can see Spanish moss, a epifytic plant that can be found hanging in the branches of trees everywhere where the air is humid enough (more on Spanish moss on this page).

More images of the Live Oaks of Audubon Park.

The Middleton Oak

 

The largest measured Southern Live Oak, named the "Middleton Oak", grows in Middleton, South Carolina. In 2004, when the Middleton Oak was measured, the tree had a total wood volume of roughly 4,820 cubic feet (roughly 136 m³)[3] and was the largest tree in eastern part of the U.S. Until 2012 this tree was only surpassed by "The Senator", a bald cypress tree in Florida.
For comparison: according to the Dutch Oak specialist Jeroen Philippona, the largest (volumewise) European tree is an English Oak (Quercus robur) in Ivenack, Germany[4] and has an estimated wood volume of about 140 m³.

However, beginning 2008, the tree lost a large part of its crown, heavily reducing its total wood volume[5]. On the left you can see the Middleton Oak as it was before 2008 (photo by Will Blozan). Notice the people standing next to the trunk to appreciate the size of this striking beauty.
The image on the right shows the present situation (photo by Michael Moran).

The Angel Oak

Near the Middleton Oak, on another plantation in the vicinity of Charleston, South Carolina, another famous Live Oak can be visited, the Angel Oak.

The tree is often called the oldest living thing in the U.S. east of the Mississippi and is often cited to be over 1500 years old. While the first might be true for a single, not resprouting tree, the second is almost certain an exaggeration. Age estimations for this tree are not scientifically substantiated, but a comparison with live oak trees for which the growth rings were counted and a comparison with proven ages for deciduous oak trees in temporate climates (where trees grow slower) makes an age of less than 600 years more likely.

The Angel Oak is standing 20 m (65 ft) tall, with a girth of about 7.7 m (28 ft) in diameter, and the crown covers an area of 1,580 m² (17,000 square feet). Its longest limb is 27 m (89 ft) in length. The tree and surrounding park have been owned by the city of Charleston since 1991[6].

The oak derives its name from the Angel estate, although local folklore told of stories of ghosts of former slaves would appear as angels around the tree[7].

Oak Alley Plantation

Oak Alley Plantation is a remarkable historic plantation located in the little town of Vacherie, Louisiana and is protected as a National Historic Landmark. It still has that Old Southern Charm feel about her, like in the French colonial days.

As you might expect, it is named after its distinguishing feature, an alley of a double row of 28 live oaks, 14 on each side, of about 240 m long, forming a fabulous gateway to the Mississippi river.

 

A few of the largest oaks in the alley. The image on the right shows the Josephine A. Stewart Oak with a girth of 31'2", a height of 71' and a crown spread of 150'[2].

The oaks where planted by a French Settler around 1710 long before the present house was built, so these oak trees are now around years old. Most of them are in good shape and probably have at least one to a few centuries to go, however, I saw one tree in the alley that is clearly declining.

The remarkable view from the balcony of the house offers a magnificent view of the Live Oaks of Oak Alley. The plantation is situated next to the Mississippi River, and in the background the levees can be seen.

 

Nowadays Oak Alley is open for the public and can be rent for garden parties, weddings, and the like. As you can see on the image on the right, tables were being set up for a wedding, the evening when I visited Oak Alley.

Official website

Rosedown Plantation

Rosedown Plantation, outside St. Francisville, Louisiana, is one of the most intact examples of a domestic plantation complex in the South of the U.S. While the oak alley is not as ancient as the one that can be found in Oak Alley Plantation, it has a beautiful garden and a mansion (completed in 1835) that, at least according to me, surpass those of Oak Alley.

It embodies the lifestyle of the antebellum South's wealthiest planters in a way very few other surviving properties can: as opposed to most other plantations like Oak Alley Plantation, featured above, this plantation did not fall into disrepair and almost all the furniture, documents, and other equipment are original.
I can recommend the guided tour through the mansion, which has indeed an intact and historic feel. While you're there, try to find the strange cedar tree with a live oak growing from inside its stem (on the left of the house, standing on the porch).

Rosedown Plantation

Afton Villa Gardens

Afton Villa is one the colonial plantations near the Mississippi river near St. Francisville, Louisiana. While the house itself does not stand today (it burned down in 1963), the gardens, designed by a French landscape artist, have been preserved. They feature numerous beautiful Live Oaks. With a haze of Spanish moss dripping from the oaks' limbs, this garden has an extraordinary Southern feel.

Afton Villa Gardens

St. Francisville

 

A close-up view of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides). The image on the right shows the St. Francisville Inn, a good starting point to visit the historic plantations (like Rosedown, Afton Villa, Greenwood, or Oakley House - Audubon State Historic Site) in the area. You could also visit Cat Island, a national wildlife refuge very nearby, where a remarkable bald cypress tree can be seen, if not inundated by the Mississippi river.

Southern Live Oak locations

Links and references

  1. The Live Oak Project: Audubon Park Live Oaks, LA
  2. The Live Oak Project: Oak Alley Plantation, LA
  3. Native Tree Society: Middleton Oak Project, Charleston, SC
  4. Old Trees in The Netherlands and Western Europe
  5. Middleton Oak's massive broken limb might provide key to tree's true age
  6. The tree... Angel Oak
  7. Pakenham, Thomas (2002). Remarkable Trees of the World. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pp. 142-43.
 

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