Massive southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) was bested by little redbud in the 2010 Society of Municipal Arborists (SMA) Urban Tree of the Year election. As this was announced at the SMA conference banquet in Savannah, Ga. of all places, many live oak fans cried, “We was robbed!” Those old wounds can now begin to compartmentalize as live oak gets its proper due as the 2013 SMA Urban Tree of the Year.
Southern live oak is a decurrent tree with low, arching, wide-spreading branches. Depending on climate, its ultimate height ranges from 40 to 60 feet and width ranges from 50 to 80 feet or more. It is reliably hardy to Zone 7b. Southern live oak, the state tree of Georgia, is native to U.S. coastal regions from Virginia south to Florida and west to Texas, but it can be planted effectively in coastal areas all the way up to Washington State. It can freely hybridize with other oaks including swamp white oak (Q. bicolor) and bur oak (Q. macrocarpa).
Southern live oak’s suitability for urban use comes from its salt tolerance, ability to tolerate both dry soils and seasonally wet ones, tolerance of soils both acidic and alkaline, ability to grow in part shade, wind resistance, and lack of major pests.
Professionals share their thoughts regarding Southern Live Oak
Most people don’t know one tree from another. That’s to be expected, but live oak is one of those trees that just about everybody knows, can identify, and more importantly, loves. In the Gulf South they routinely live upwards of 300 years, a fact that provokes awe and a certain jealousy among us humans. Their physical strength, wondrous canopies, and near-evergreen nature serve to connect us with the past.
I remember once in the early 1990s when R.J. Laverne (then with ACRT) visited Baton Rouge as a consultant to help us craft an urban forestry management plan. Having come down from Maine, he explained to me that he’d never really seen a live oak, so I took him on a tour that started with one of our older specimens. The thing I recall most was R.J.’s absolute wonder as he walked beneath the huge canopy and cradling low-draping limbs, just quietly touching and gazing at the thing like he was a child who’d just walked into Disneyland.
Now, it’s true that live oaks are not for everybody. They are enormous and greedy devourers of physical space. They eat sidewalks and curbs for lunch. They are no respecters of neither underground nor overhead space and frequently come into conflict with utilities. They also possess a disturbing predilection for included bark (when grown from random seedlings).
On the other hand, their low green canopies shield us from hurricane winds. Their strength and durability often keep them alive through the most egregious construction abuse. Their ecological value is as enormous as their size, and their cultural value is indescribably deep and wide, from the lumber in Cajun cabins to the massive ribs of Old Ironsides.
It’s fitting that an oak that’s not really in the red oak or white oak class and not really evergreen nor deciduous should stand as the representative, in many people’s minds, of an entire genus. It’s also fitting that specimens that have stood naturally on my own native soil since the days before my own town even existed should be honored by SMA collectively with their mighty kinfolk across America. It just feels right.
— Steve Shurtz, urban forestry & landscape manager, Department of Public Works, City of Baton Rouge, La.
The two live oak species in our neck of the woods are the coastal live oak (Quercus virginiana) and the plateau live oak (Quercus fusiformis). Live oaks are one of the most versatile and valuable tree species we have. Not only do they help provide clean air and water, capture stormwater, and provide oxygen, beauty, and superb wildlife habitat; they are also extremely tough and drought hardy. When they do expire, large trees are valued for woodworking and smaller trees can be used for barbeques and fireplaces.
In harsh tree wells in the urban environment where other species would give up the ghost, live oaks can survive and provide their wonderful shade and beauty. In our oldest municipal park in Texas, San Pedro Springs Park (second oldest in the United States), the old live oaks provide an emotional link with the past. Citizens can visit the park and imagine early San Antonians picnicking under the draping canopies with limbs so long and heavy that they touch the ground.
It is for these and so many other reasons close to each citizen’s heart that the live oak is one of the most loved, revered, and treasured species in San Antonio.
— Michael Nentwich, city forester, San Antonio, Texas, Parks & Recreation
When you think of Savannah, one of the first images you have is live oaks adorned with Spanish moss. These trees add to the historic beauty and colonial charm that makes Savannah a destination city in the Southeast. Aside from their beauty, the live oaks may be near-perfect trees to have in the urban environment. They have a spreading canopy that can cover a large area, making them great shade trees to cool visitors, residents and historic buildings. The live oaks also keep the city green all winter long.
Aside from the environmental benefits, live oaks can compartmentalize very well when injured, so they don’t decay rapidly like other trees. Most of the deadwood is strong and secure, making them safer compared to other trees with similar diameters of deadwood. Live oaks can withstand weather events better than other tree species in Savannah, which helps lower the liability to the City. Their canopy provides a great habitat for a variety of wildlife, songbirds, lizards, and small mammals. The live oak is a very popular tree to have on one’s property and can add considerable value. I cannot think of a more perfect tree for this city. Kudos, Quercus virginiana!
— Michael Pavlis, tree maintenance supervisor, Park and Tree, City of Savannah, Ga.
Southern live oak… No other tree species evokes such powerful classic imagery of the Southland. Graceful limbs draped in Spanish moss and resurrection fern arch over roadways to form a cathedral-like effect that leaves an indelible impression on all onlookers. Southern live oak is synonymous with Savannah; it is an integral part of the City’s history, identity, character, and charm.
The durability of live oak wood is legendary. The USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world (1797), was constructed using framework and timbers made of live oak harvested in Brunswick, Georgia. The ship was dubbed “Old Ironsides” for its ability to withstand canon fire. Why, I sometimes wonder, did Savannah’s forefathers decide to plant Southern live oak so prominently throughout the city? Perhaps the species had already earned a reputation for strength and toughness!
An ordinance passed by the General Assembly of the State of Georgia in 1895 established the first Park & Tree Commission in Savannah. The following year, the Commission expressed its preference for the use of live oak due to its long lifespan and hardiness. This legacy of live oak trees has endured to the benefit of generations of Savannahians. Southern live oak is hands-down the most durable, storm resistant, hardy tree in the Southeast and is truly a tree for the ages.
— Bill Haws, forestry administrator, Park and Tree, City of Savannah
Article provided by the Society of Municipal Arborists.
Editor’s Note: Arbor Age magazine is not affiliated with the Society of Municipal Arborists or the Urban Tree of the Year selection.
Photos by Bill HawsSouthern Live Oak fact sheet
By Len Phillips, ASLA Emeritus
Botanical Name: Quercus virginiana
Common Name: Live Oak, Southern Live Oak
Hardiness Zone*: 8 to 10, does best in warmer locations within these zones
Height: 40 to 80 feet
Spread: 60 to 100 feet
Growth Rate: Fast to moderate, 2 to 3 feet a year in youth, slows down with age
Form: Massive and wide spreading tree, horizontal branching
Bloom Period: Early spring, late March to early April
Flower: Brown catkins in clumps
Acorn: 1/2 inch to 1 inch long, 1 to 5 per stem, 1/3 covered by cap, dark brown to black
Spring Color: Old leaves drop off in spring, new leaves bright olive green
Summer Foliage: Dark green, glossy, willow leaf shaped
Autumn Foliage: No fall color
Winter Interest: Evergreen leaves provide winter color
Bark: Very dark, almost black, blocky appearance on mature trees
Roots: Can form large surface roots
Habitat: Native to the southeastern part of the United States
Culture: Prefers moist bottomland, well-drained soil, tolerates alkaline and compacted soils
Pest Problems: No serious disease or insect problems, very long-lived tree exceeding 300 years
Storm Resistance: Excellent
Salt Resistance: Excellent
Planting: Transplant in small sizes
Pruning: For good structure prune annually in first 5 years, then every 5 years to age 30
Design Uses: Excellent specimen for parks, streets without sidewalks, mansions, and other large landscapes
Companions: Best with other Live Oaks, junipers, and lawns
Other Comments: Excellent specimen, suitable for street tree, usually graced with Spanish moss and strongly reminiscent of the Old South, extremely tolerant of hurricane force winds, useful in reforestation projects
Awards: 2013 Urban Tree of the Year by the Society of Municipal Arborists; it is also the official state tree of Georgia
Available from: Most large nurseries in Southeastern United States.
Fact Sheet: [ital>http://dendro.cnre.vt.edu/dendrology/syllabus/factsheet.cfm?ID=78<ITAL]
* For information about the USDA Hardiness Zone Map, visit www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/index.html