The southern live oak, quercus virginiana, is a large majestic oak tree species native to the southeastern United States coastline. While some other species are loosely referred to as live oaks, the southern live oak is an iconic part of the Old South. The term “live” refers to the tree’s evergreen characteristic – its leaves remain nearly year-round. Over a period of days, leaves fall off in the spring as new leaves begin to emerge.
The tree is anchored by a deep tap-root which develops into an extensive root system. Lower branches will reach out to the ground and then turn upward. These features, along with a low center of gravity, allow southern live oak to withstand strong sustained costal winds – hurricanes. Several live oaks have been certified to be over 1000 years old!
It prefers well drained sandy soils below 300ft above sea level. Their broad, dense canopy discourages flammable undergrowth. As such, the tree can usually withstand fires because the flames are unlikely to reach the crown. If burned, the crown and roots respond with vigorous growth.
Though not suitable for planking, the live oak’s hard, strong and curved wood was a preferred source of sailing ship framework timbers. The frame of the famous USS Constitution was constructed from southern live oak harvested from the state of Georgia. The density of wood grain helped the ship survive cannon fire during The War of 1812, earning it the nickname “Old Ironsides”.
Today, the southern live oak provides shelter and food to local wildlife. I captured this series, including the white tail bucks above foraging for live oak acorns, on the Intracostal Waterway near Holden Beach, North Carolina.