The Branches of Memory.... The Southern Live Oak
The Southern Live Oak, (Quercus virginiana), does not tend to get exceptionally tall; on average, between 40 and 80 feet can be expected. It has spreading branches that reach between 60 and 100 feet. When leaves are young, the tree has olive-green foliage which changes to a glossy, darker green once they mature. It is primarily an evergreen; however, in the early spring leaves will drop and be replaced with new growth within a week or two. It can grow in moist to sandy, dry soil. The tree is very hardy and is resistant to fire. This is due to the fact that most forest fires do not reach the crown of the tree.
The Sounthern Live Oak is only recomended for USDA zone 7 and warmer according to the University of Florida Extension Office. If one in a colder climate wanted a tree with this type of "evergreen" nature, the Oklahoma Live Oak, (Quercus virginiana var. fusiformis), is hardy up to zone 6, according to the USDA.
The Southern live oak is often found draped with Spanish moss or mistletoe. The live oak is strong enough to withstand the forces from the winds of a hurricane. It is tolerant to both flood and drought.
Live Oak produces very hard wood which is difficult to build with. Live oak was the preferred wood during the time when ships were built by hand. Lumber cut from the live oak tree was chosen due to its natural branch angles and trunk sturdiness used in the ships' framework. The red oak was often substituted, although it had greatly inferior strength than the live oak.
Many wild creatures love to partake of the Southern live oaks' acorns. A few of them are squirrels, deer, the endangered scrub jay, wood duck, turkey, and the black bear. Not only is this great old tree a source of food for many creatures, it is also a nesting place for a multitude of birds and squirrels.
Transplanting a Southern live oak is not a difficult undertaking. It is preferable that transplants are placed in the ground when they are between two and four feet tall. Since the live oak lives so long, it is best to ensure that it stays well trimmed the first five years, allowing the trunk to strengthen before the branches are permitted to grow too large. Dead or decaying branches should be trimmed immediately and pruning should be performed every five years. Pruning should be performed when the tree is dormant and without signs of wilt. The live oak is dormant during the late summer months. Due to safety concerns, it is best to have a professional tree trimmer take care of the pruning when they have entered maturity.
You would be hard pressed to find a live oak without Spanish moss, (Tillandsia usneoides), draped over the limbs. Spanish moss growing on the tree is relatively harmless, if kept under control; the mistletoe that is occasionally found in trees is actually a parasite and should be removed if possible. A good way to accomplish this is to trim the branches from the tree once mistletoe has taken attached to them. Mistletoe can weaken the tree if it is permitted to continue to grow and spread on the tree.
The Southern live oak is an addition to your property that will last your lifetime and many more. No one has been able to determine exactly how long an oak tree can live. An example of the Southern live oak's long life span is the Angel Oak in Charleston, South Carolina. It has survived earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, (including Hurricane Hugo), as well as unknown human interference. It is believed to be approximately 1,500 years old with a branch canopy of 17,000 square feet.
Planting a tree of this variety near your home can provide shade for comfort while helping save energy for the environment. Taking car e to consider the room neccessary for the branches to spread. It will also help to prevent erosion from minor flooding occurrences. Children and grandchildren alike will enjoy many years climbing amongst the branches of these trees.
The Southern live oak has been described as majestic and magnificent. It has been a constant in movies filmed in the south such as, "Forrest Gump" and "Sweet Home Alabama." One cannot truly see and experience southern life, in my opinion, without having spent some time beneath the gnarly branches of the Southern live oak on a warm afternoon.
40 - 80 feet
Mature Branch Span
60 -100 feet
7 - 10
2½ - 5 inches wide
13-24 inches per year
Partial shade to full sun
Until we can climb together again...
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 17, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
 University of Florida IFAS Extension
Additional information was garnered from the following websites:
Photos are courtesy of http://www.wikipedia.org/
Thumbnail image is courtesy of mattbowen at http://www.morguefile.com/archive/?display=208750