Southern live oaks are majestic. Iconic. A true symbol of the South. You can’t but stop and admire them, especially when they form a canopy over a road or show off their Spanish moss accessories on their long, curved branches.
But how much do you know about these nearly evergreen trees that are so well-loved that they are the official tree of Wilmington, North Carolina?
To truly appreciate the southern live oak, one need only look at their history. Because they have one of the strongest types of wood, they were used in shipbuilding. Live oaks naturally grow in different twisting and arched shapes, making the wood easier to use for the curves and angles of a ship. The U.S.S. Constitution, nicknamed “Old Ironsides”, was built from 2,000 trees, most of which were live oaks. The ship earned the nickname during the war of 1812, when the ship reportedly had cannons “bouncing off the side” of the hull.
Unfortunately, between live oaking (cutting down and transporting wood for shipbuilding) and using wood as fuel, many of the live oak forests were lost. Luckily, we can still appreciate the ones that are left, and some of them, like the Airlie Oak, date back to before our country was a country!
Why is it called a “live” oak?
Live oaks get their name from the fact that they are always “live,” meaning that they (almost) always have leaves. The leaves are only shed once a year, in the spring, after new leaves have formed (unlike other oak trees that lose their leaves in the winter months). The scientific name, quercus virginiana, points back to the fact that the live oak is most commonly found in the southern states, including Virginia.
Does Spanish Moss harm the tree?
Live oaks are typically found with Spanish moss hanging from their boughs, and resurrection ferns like to grow around the trunks. Unlike parasitic plants, such as mistletoe, the moss and fern do not take nutrients from the trees; instead, they use them as support. They don’t harm the tree at all, but rather live peacefully together. Not to mention that they add a certain level of drama to the stately trees!
Planting Southern Live Oaks
Southern Live Oaks are an ideal tree to plant in the Wilmington area, as they require very little care. However, you’ll need a yard that enables them to branch out and can accommodate the extensive root system. While they don’t grow particularly tall (only 50 or 60 feet), live oak limbs grow outward and occupy a large area. The roots also require plenty of space and have been known to lift sidewalks and driveways over time.
Live oaks do best in warm, moist weather, which is why they thrive here by the coast in North Carolina. While they grow well in salty soils and shade, they cannot stand the cold, and won’t survive in freezing temperatures.
Caring for Southern Live Oak Trees
The southern live oak is a fast-growing tree (about three feet each year), and most live oaks reach their maximum trunk diameter within 70 years. They are practically self-sustaining, but early watering and pruning can help your tree flourish.
If you’ve recently planted or plan on planting a young live oak, be sure to regularly water it to ensure that the soil is moist (but not wet). Avoid planting other trees or plants too close to the live oak tree, as, like most of us, it needs space to thrive and grow. It’s also important that the tree not be in competition with other plants (including turf) for nutrients. We recommend at least a 15-foot radius for the roots.
Properly using mulch is one way you can suppress competing weeds and add nutrients to the ground for your live oak. Don’t pile the mulch up against the trunk of the tree, creating a “mulch volcano.” Rather, place it several inches away from the trunk and spread it so that it is no more than 2” to 4” high.
As your tree grows, have it pruned regularly but NEVER top a live oak (or any other kind of tree). Creating proper branch and trunk structure early on will ensure that the tree grows strong and healthy. Prune any dead wood – for safety reasons, and because it keeps the tree healthy with good wound closure.
Support Your Live Oak
Mature live oak limbs are long, extremely heavy and sometimes unable to sustain their own weight without support (through cabling) or pruning to reduce overall size. If a branch becomes too heavy, it may break and fall, potentially causing damage to the surrounding area.
Cabling can also be used to maintain the height of a limb. Since live oak branches grow out rather than up, the added weight over the years sometimes causes them to grow downward. If your live oak is over a pathway or a driveway, for instance, cabling can keep the branches at a specific height (instead of having to remove them). If you’re not sure if your live oak is in need of some support, contact a Certified Arborist who is familiar with all aspects of trees and their surroundings.
Southern Live Oaks tend to stick around
Overall, southern live oaks are little affected by pests or diseases, are hardy in droughts, tolerant of nearby construction and, if properly cared for with early watering, consistent pruning, and enough space, they are very long-lived. Many live oaks are estimated to be several hundred years old, having outlived many of the surrounding trees. (See the article about how we moved an oak to make room for new construction)
Reminiscent of the Old South, the southern live oak tree might just inspire you to spend some warm summer days sipping lemonade under the shade that it provides. Strong and sturdy, it should last years for you and your family to enjoy, as well as for generations to come.