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Southern Live Oak

Southern Live Oak

Quercus virginiana

Status: Not Listed

Classification: Plant

Description

Southern live oaks are majestic trees that are emblems of the South. When given enough room to grow, their sweeping limbs plunge toward the ground before shooting upward, creating an impressive array of branches. Crowns of the largest southern live oaks reach diameters of 150 feet (45.7 meters)—nearly large enough to encompass half of a football field. On average, though, the crown spread is 80 feet (24 meters) and the height is 50 feet (15 meters). Branches usually stem from a single trunk, which can grow to five or six feet (1.5 to 1.8 meters) in diameter.

Unlike most oak trees, which are deciduous, southern live oaks are nearly evergreen. They replace their leaves over a short period of several weeks in the spring. Sweet, tapered acorns produced by the trees are eaten by birds and mammals, including sapsuckers, mallards, wild turkeys, squirrels, black bears, and deer. The threatened Florida scrub jay relies on the scrub form of the southern live oak for nesting. Other birds make use of the moss that frequently hangs from the tree branches to construct nests.

Range

As their scientific name (Quercus virginiana) suggests, southern live oaks are found in Virginia, and continue south to Florida and west to Texas and Oklahoma. Southern live oaks grow well in salty soils and in shade, which makes them great competitors against other, less tolerant trees. But Southern live oaks are confined to warm parts of the country because of their inability to survive freezing temperatures. These trees grow in the wild, but they’re also popular ornamental plants with many southerners.

Life History

Flowers of the southern live oak aren’t bright and showy like those of some other trees. They are small, brown, and pollinated by wind in the spring. Acorns fall in autumn and serve as a food source for many animals.

Southern live oaks are fast-growing trees, but their growth rate slows with age. They may reach close to their maximum trunk diameter within 70 years. The oldest live oaks in the country are estimated to be between several hundred to more than a thousand years old.

Conservation

Despite their incredibly strong wood, southern live oaks aren’t used much for timber anymore, though they were once the preferred tree for ship-building. Their biggest threats are several pests and diseases, including wilt disease, which is most prevalent in Texas. They are also susceptible to freezing temperatures and acid rain.

Fun Fact

Wood from southern live oaks is incredibly tough and durable. The naval vessel U.S.S. Constitution was nicknamed “Old Ironsides” after her live oak hull survived repeated cannon fire during the War of 1812.

Sources

Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce

South Carolina Department of Natural Resources

University of Florida IFAS Extension

University of Florida School of Forest Resources & Conservation

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Station

U.S. Forest Service

Winter Park Live Oak Fund

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