We may take them for granted, but for many the southern live oak is the iconic symbol of the Lowcountry. Quercus virginiana is common from (as the name implies) Virginia all the way down the southeast coast to Florida. Ideally adapted for salty soil, humidity and the high winds of the hurricane season, these majestic trees provide crucial food and shelter for wildlife. Deer, squirrels and all manner of birds depend on the southern live oak's acorns during the winter months, while its strong, curving, moss-draped limbs provide ample nesting material and secure nesting sites.
Unlike its deciduous oak cousins further north, southern live oaks retain their leaves nearly all year-long, dropping old leaves as new ones replace them during a short blossoming season in the spring - as we all know while we reach for the leaf-blower from mid-March to mid-April. The trees' crowns, which can grow to as much as a hundred feet in diameter, bestow plenty of shade on sticky summer days; while thick trunks, deep taproots and extensive root systems mean these trees can withstand hurricane-force winds or winter droughts. The wood is incredibly hard and resistant to rot, which is how Old Ironsides got its name. Along with scores of similar naval vessels built during the late 18th and into the 19th centuries, Old Ironsides's hull and keel were built using the wood.
Southern live oaks are long-lived, with two nearby examples thought to be at least several hundred years old. Johns Island's Angel Oak, just off Bohicket Road near Main Road, is thought be up to 700 years old, with a trunk circumference of over 28-feet and its crown shading an area of 17,000 square feet. Its name comes from prior owners of the property, Justus and Martha Angel, although local legend has it that the floating lights of "angel ghosts" of enslaved African-Americans can sometimes be seen in the tree's upper reaches. The site is now a public park owned by Charleston County.
The Middleton Oak, on the banks of the Ashley River at Middleton Place, may have a smaller diameter trunk, at about 10-feet, but its canopy is truly impressive and served as a landmark and resting place for Native Americans traveling along the river in pre-Colonial times. Some botanists think the tree may be nearly 1,000-years old.
So when Arbor Day arrives, on April 29th, take a moment to appreciate these venerable symbols of our Lowcountry ecosystem.