Katrina focused the world’s attention on these trees, beloved as a symbol of long life and a slower pace

Southern comfort: Katrina focused the world’s attention on these trees, beloved as a symbol of long life and a slower pace

Ethan Kearns

Old tobacco and cotton plantation causeways lined with trees. City parks and forested countrysides draped with Spanish moss. Images of the South are almost assuredly set against the backdrop of a spreading live oak. Whether they formed front yard playgrounds or ended a romantic evening, these oaks have made an indelible mark on southern culture since before our nation’s founding


What is it about Quercus virginiana van virginiana that make it such a strong and vibrant image? Is it the seemingly endless stretch of horizontal branches, the exotic appeal of moss-covered limbs shrouded in fog? Or perhaps the sense of enveloping comfort those large, sprawling limbs and huge canopies provide.

Whatever the allure, live oaks were the trees people thought of first after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. Fortunately the low-slung trees are suited for hurricane weather. While some live oaks were lost, many survived with just a battering.

“The 30-foot storm surge and 145 mph winds destroyed everything within reach … Everything built by man was reduced to rubble, left as debris, tossed like a child’s toy, or left as a foundation scar in the sand. Everything is gone…. except for the live oak trees, ” Ed Macie, the U.S. Forest Service’s regional urban forester, reported after a visit to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

What else could you expect from a species that boasts its own exclusive club? The Live Oak Society was born in response to a 1934 article by University of Southwestern Louisiana professor Edwin Lewis Stephens, who decided to make his data on the species official after numerous road trips to document locations and measurements.


“I have been considering the live oak for some time and am coming to believe that the world does not realize what a splendid possession it holds in this tree,” he wrote in the Louisiana Conservation Review. “Why do we not form a Louisiana Live Oak Association?”

It was a beginning quite similar to that of AMERICAN FORESTS’ National Register of Big Trees, which was born in 1940 after forester Joseph Stearns decried the wholesale cutting of “our most magnificent remaining tree specimens.” The current president of the Live Oak Society–the Seven Sisters in Lewisburg, Louisiana (so named by a former owner who was one of seven sisters)–is also the Register’s national cochampion.

Since 1934 the Live Oak Society has grown to include more than 5,282 members–all trees, save one–throughout 14 states. The only member without branches is the society’s acting chairman, Coleen Perilloux Landry, who has been maintaining the Society’s information since 2001. She can still remember her first experiences with a live oak.

“Growing up at my family’s house we had a live oak and my father put a swing on it and I remember soaring up into its branches,” she says.

Childhood memories that feature live oaks are not uncommon for southerners; the species’ long, low limbs and shady crowns comprise some of the world’s longest-lived trees. An average one is known to have a life span of more than 200 years; foresters estimate the Seven Sisters at more than 1,200 years old.

In fact, the qualifications for becoming a member of the Live Oak Society include being a tree “whose age is not less than a hundred years,” as Stephens put it. The Society had 45 founding members, including several (tree) vice presidents and a president. The first president was the Locke Breaux Oak in Taft, Louisiana, which reigned until its death in 1968 due to air and groundwater pollution.

The live oak’s range sprawls like its limbs, with the trees commonly found from southwestern Virginia as far west and south as Oklahoma and Mexico. Also known as the evergreen oak, Quercus virginiana var. virginiana thrives in coastal areas with sandy soils and wooded areas along stream-banks and riverbeds. Although it grows in groves with other hardwoods, the live oak stands out with its thick trunk forking at the base into practically horizontal branches. The name comes from the fact that the tree looks ‘live’ or evergreen year round. Its elliptical-shaped leaves remain on the tree for 13 months before being pushed aside by new ones. Like most oaks, its acorns provide sustenance for all manner of birds and animals. In some instances acorns are produced when the tree is only a foot tall.


The acorn’s sweet meat made it a popular food source among Native American tribes. The colonists liked it even better for its wood, one of the toughest and densest available. During the era of the nation’s independence, live oak was used extensively in shipbuilding, providing a stable, thick hull that was practically impregnable by cannonballs.


The U.S.S. Constitution, constructed from live oak timbers, made a name for itself during the War of 1812 when British cannonballs bounced off its sides, earning it the nickname “Old Ironsides.” The trees also provided natural “knees,” joining the ship’s hull to its decking. These pieces were cut from sections where large roots met the base of the tree. The interwoven grain made a much stronger piece than one constructed from regular timber.

Congress took notice, heralding what may have been the beginnings of a realization of the importance of forest resources. The 1799 purchase of 350 acres of live oak in the Carolinas and Georgia constituted the nation’s first publicly owned forestland and made live oak the first species in North America to be actively preserved. By 1845 the government owned more than a quarter-million acres of live oak in protected forestland spread across five southern states. The production of newer ship models, however, resulted in the majority of these lands being reopened for settlement.


Today, these majestic trees are threatened by the constant jockeying for space with concrete and buildings. When progress comes calling, however, it can prove help ful to be a member of the Live Oak Society.

Trees within its ranks achieve almost celebrity status and tend to receive additional public support when threatened. Membership status saved Old Dickory, of Harahan, Louisiana, from destruction in 2003 when a Louisiana highway project threatened to bulldoze the landmark. After a public outcry, the highway project was redesigned, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ drainage project restructured, and a land developer’s plan for a subdivision revised.

“Never have so many agencies worked together so completely in such a short time to save an historic tree,” Landry says. As a result of this success the Louisiana Department of Transportation now has a policy that considers historic trees and their preservation when embarking on projects.

Historic status, of course, means nothing in the face of 100-mph-plus winds. Society members, like almost everything in Hurricane Katrina’s path, were hit hard. Limbs were severed and canopies torn to shred, yet while landscapes flooded and eroded, the trees refused to tumble. In some instances buildings collapsed and crumbled around them.

Live oak’s strong root system and low forking stems combined with the wood’s overall density and strength is its recipe for long life. In downtown New Orleans, where the Society’s largest registered stand–249 trees–resides in City Park, some live oaks stood in water for three weeks. “You’ve got trees that are literally drowning or suffocating from lack of oxygen,” Steve Shertz, forestry manager for Baton Rouge, said at the time.

City Park is home to more than 1,000 live oaks, currently sharing space with restoration crews working throughout the city to clear debris and start the process of rebuilding.

In other areas the oaks are experiencing a different type of trauma. Along the coast, trees that with-stood the brunt of the storm had the soil around their roots stripped away by the severe erosion that followed flooding. The bare roots were coated in salt left behind by receding gulf waters. A lack of rain made the situation even worse.

Along city streets some contractors are bulldozing oaks and other trees with hanging debris rather than take the time to manage them. Trees on private property are being removed by returning homeowners fearful of future damage. Walter Passmore of the Mississippi Forestry Commission estimates in his state alone Katrina wiped out 3.5 million trees, a total of $1.1 billion in damage.


As Gulf Coast residents begin to rebuild their lives, groups–including AMERICAN FORESTS–are working to fund projects to protect, restore, and reforest ecosystems damaged by Katrina. AMERICAN FORESTS’ Katrina ReLeaf fund (www.americanforests.org) is collecting donations at $1 a tree to replant communities in 2006 when areas are deemed ready.

Mississippi Urban Forestry Council has developed workshops and educational campaigns on managing trees in debris-filled areas. The Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain is working with coastal communities and local contractors to replace eroded soils, remove residual salts, and restore oaks. The Home Depot Foundation is supporting efforts to restore and reforest live oaks and their forest ecosystems.


In fact, there has been an outpouring of concern from around the world for the southern trees. “It’s amazing how people all over the world have been interested in what the hurricane did to the live oaks,” the Live Oak Society’s Landry says.

She’s recommending live oaks for those looking to replant their yards. “If it weren’t for the live oaks, New Orleans would be naked.” The southern symbol has begun putting on new flushes of leaves, as though welcoming residents back home, Landry says. “I can almost hear them saying … we’re still here.”

Ethan Kearns coordinates AMERICAN FORESTS’ National Register of Big Trees.


COPYRIGHT 2006 American Forests

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