“I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing / All alone stood it, and the moss hung down from the branches.” —Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1860-61
More than 150 years after Whitman wrote those lines, the southern live oak still embodies the American ideal of individual resilience—a stoic figure standing tall. One of the country’s more whimsical-looking trees, the live oak is also one of the strongest. Indeed, it has saved the lives of thousands of people who have clung to its limbs during hurricanes. And these days scientists appreciate its extraordinary capacity for absorbing atmospheric carbon, a bonus in the era of climate change. However solitary the live oak might appear, the species is working hard to ensure our collective survival.
Native to the United States, Quercus virginiana is known for its longevity—the trees can live for over a thousand years—and for its signature limbs, with their sinuous, gangly quirkiness. Southern live oaks get their name because, unlike oaks that lose their leaves in the winter, live oaks regrow their foliage throughout the year, so their leaves are unfailingly lush, adorning the Southeast from Virginia down the East Coast and through the South to Texas and Oklahoma, with low-hanging branches that seem to beckon climbers.
These rugged trees tend to grow inland from coastal dunes and are considered the longtime keystone species of the maritime forests of the American South because they offer crucial support to a remarkably diverse host of species. Their famously deep and hardy roots, meanwhile, give live oaks impressive staying power.
The live oak has nourished and protected the continent’s inhabitants for many centuries. Beginning in pre-Columbian America, Native peoples have ground the tree’s acorns into meal and knew its strong roots could be counted on during disasters. In the late 1700s, the U.S. Navy recognized the tree’s toughness—and its curved limbs, ideal for ship hulls—and began using it to make particularly sturdy vessels: The world’s oldest ship still afloat, the USS Constitution, launched in 1797, got its nickname, “Old Ironsides,” during the War of 1812 after its hull, made in part of live oak, proved itself equal to the fearsome cannons of the British. The physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. called this impregnable vessel the “eagle of the sea”—a floating proxy for America itself.
The tree’s fortitude has become even more important in the era of climate change, and the live oak still represents a life raft for those in the paths of tropical storms. Resistant to salt water, the trees serve as a defense against extreme weather, with deep roots that hold fast and downward-curling branches that offer shelter from high winds. “While the dunes and barrier islands are effective at mitigating storm surges and high winds, the next round of defense is this maritime forest,” explains Paul Manos, a professor of biology at Duke University, who has studied oaks for most of his career. “Live oaks are not very tall but very broad, and they are biomechanically adept at handling high winds because the winds go right over them.” Equally important, the live oak is thought to be one of the most efficient trees in the world at capturing carbon because of its large canopy, dense wood and impressive longevity, which is why Douglas Tallamy, an entomologist and wildlife ecologist at the University of Delaware, sees oaks as an important part of long-term solutions to climate change.
Live oaks’ survival skills are on vivid display if you drive through southwest Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico. You won’t see many structures near the end of the road; fences, businesses and homes have been demolished by a series of storms over the past decade. But you will see big, beautiful oak trees, centuries old. So many people over the generations have ridden out storms here by holding fast to the branches of a live oak. Historians have traced this practice to a Native trapper in the 1800s who taught settlers how to tie themselves to these “storm trees” during hurricanes. There are still locals who tell me they rode out a catastrophic 1957 storm that way.
One of the greatest threats facing the live oak is development. “I get calls every day,” says Coleen Perilloux Landry, chairman of the Live Oak Society, an organization of the Louisiana Garden Club Federation. “Most of the time they call panic-stricken at the last second because the utility company is in their yard about to cut down the branches.” Landry typically sends an arborist to the site to learn if it is necessary to fell the tree, or to make sure the company cuts only what is needed.
The current president of the Live Oak Society is 1,200 years old. One of the vice presidents has a trunk more than ten feet in diameter. Landry is the society’s only human member; the rest are the trees. One of the most famous is Angel Oak, a titan 400 or more years old on Johns Island in South Carolina. A low-country tourist attraction because of its majestic beauty, it is protected from developers. Across the South, other anonymous live oaks lack protections—though anyone can register a given tree for conservation; that way, the society knows to intervene if it’s threatened.
Whitman, of course, found his arboreal muse in Louisiana, and while there are live oaks at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., “We don’t have anything like the Angel Oak,” says horticulturist Kevin Conrad. “To see the real deal, you have to go south. … It’s almost a spiritual experience, to stand underneath these incredible trees.”
As a keystone species, the southern live oak shelters hundreds of woodland creatures
By Rebecca Worby
Ferruginous pygmy owl
These tiny, long-tailed owls are well known in parts of Mexico and Central and South America, but their range extends into Arizona and south Texas, too. In Texas, the birds’ survival mainly depends on the live oak, says Fred Bryant, director of development at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in Kingsville, Texas. The owls often like to make their nests in the cavities that woodpeckers have left in the trees.
Barking tree frog
Named for its jarring call, the largest native tree frog in the U.S.—typically 2 to 2.75 inches long—spends the warm months in the branches of live oaks and burrows beneath the roots in winter. You can see these frogs doing acrobatics as they hop toward the canopy. Indeed, in 1961 the late Doris Cochran, a Smithsonian herpetologist, observed that, in captivity, they can “easily perform on a toy trapeze” thanks to the strong suction of their fingers and toes.
White M hairstreak
This butterfly takes its name from its wings, which are blue on top, with silvery undersides sporting a zigzagging white line that resembles an “M” and, to some observers, a false eye. In the American South, caterpillars lay their eggs on the leaves of southern live oaks; farther north, they depend on other oak species. Once they become butterflies, though, they are hard to spot because they live so high in the canopies.
Lasiurus seminolusThis reddish-brown bat likes to roost in clumps of Spanish moss that thrive on live oak branches. These solitary, big-eared creatures especially enjoy the shady mats of Spanish moss on the southwest sides of oaks, where they huddle and snooze during the day. These areas are generally free of branches, giving the bats a clear flight path.