LIVE OAK (Quercus virginiana)
Quercus virginiana, also known as the southern live oak, is a normally evergreen oak tree native to the southeastern United States. Though many other species are loosely called live oak, the southern live oak is particularly iconic of the Old South
A large number of common names are used for this tree, including “Virginia live oak”, “bay live oak”, “scrub live oak”, “plateau oak”, “plateau live oak”, “escarpment live oak”, and (in Spanish) “encino”. It is also often just called “live oak” within its native area, but the full name “southern live oak” helps to distinguish it from other live oaks, a general term for any evergreen species of oak.
This profusion of common names partly reflects an ongoing controversy about the classification of various live oaks, in particular its near relatives among the white oaks (Quercus subgenus Quercus, section Quercus). Some authors recognize as distinct species the forms others consider to be varieties of Quercus virginiana. Notably, the following two taxa, treated as species in the Flora of North America, are treated as varieties of southern live oak by the United States Forest Service: the Texas live oak, Quercus fusiformis (Q. virginiana var. fusiformis) and the sand live oak, Quercus geminata (Q. virginiana var. geminata).
Matters are further complicated by southern live oaks hybridizing with both the above two species, and also with dwarf live oak (Q. minima), swamp white oak (Q. bicolor), Durand oak (Q. durandii), overcup oak (Q. lyrata), bur oak (Q. macrocarpa), and post oak (Q. stellata).
Typical southern live oaks are endemic from southeast Virginia to Florida, including the Florida Keys, and west to southeast Texas. Texas live oaks grow primarily in Texas, on the Edwards Plateau and the Rio Grande Plain, but can be found as far west as Terrell County, Texas, in southwestern Oklahoma and northeastern Mexico. Sand live oaks grow from North Carolina to Florida in the east and Mississippi in the west.
Although live oaks retain their leaves nearly year-round, they are not true evergreens. Live oaks drop their leaves immediately before new leaves emerge in the spring. Occasionally, senescing leaves may turn yellow or contain brown spots in the winter, leading many to mistakenly believe the tree has oak wilt, whose symptoms typically occur in the summer. A live oak’s defoliation may occur sooner in marginal climates or in dry or cold winters.
The bark is dark, thick, and furrowed longitudinally. The leaves are stiff and leathery, with the tops shiny dark green and the bottoms pale gray and very tightly tomentose, simple and typically flattish with bony-opaque margins, with a length of .75 – 6 inches (2 – 15 cm) and a width of .4 – 2 inches (1 – 5 cm), borne alternately. The male flowers are green hanging catkins with lengths of 3 – 4 inches (7.5 –10 cm). The acorns are small, .4 – 1 inch (1 – 2.5 cm), oblong in shape (ovoid or oblong-ellipsoid), shiny and tan-brown to nearly black, often black at the tips, and borne singly or in clusters.
Depending on the growing conditions, live oaks vary from a shrub-size to large and spreading tree-size: typical open-grown trees reach 20 meters (60 feet) in height, with a limb spread of nearly 27 meters (80 feet). Their lower limbs often sweep down towards the ground before curving up again. They can grow at severe angles, and Native Americans used to bend saplings over so that they would grow at extreme angles, to serve as trail markers.
The branches frequently support other plant species such as rounded clumps of ball moss, thick drapings of Spanish moss, resurrection fern, and parasitic mistletoe.
The southern live oak has a deep tap-root that anchors it when young and eventually develops into an extensive and widespread root system. This, along with its low center of gravity and other factors, makes the southern live oak extremely resistant to strong sustained winds, such as those seen in hurricanes.
The southern live oak grows in a wide variety of sites but has low fire-resistance and occurs most any place free from fire that is not too wet. They tend to survive fire, because often a fire will not reach their crowns. Even if a tree is burned, its crowns and roots usually survive the fire and sprout vigorously. Furthermore, live oak forests discourage entry of fire from adjacent communities because they provide dense cover that discourages the growth of a flammable understory. They can withstand occasional floods and hurricanes, and are resistant to salt spray and moderate soil salinity. Although they grow best in well-drained sandy soils and loams, they will also grow in clay. Live oaks are also surprisingly hardy. Those of southern provenance can easily be grown in USDA zone 7 and the Texas live oak (Quercus virginiana var. fusiformis), having the same evergreen foliage as the southern variety, can be grown with success in areas as cold as zone 6. Even with significant winter leaf burn, these trees can make a strong comeback during the growing season in more northerly areas, such New Jersey, southern Ohio, and southern Connecticut.
Primary uses for southern live oaks are providing food and shelter for wildlife. Among the animals for which live oak acorns are an important food source are the bobwhite quail, the threatened Florida scrub jay, the wood duck, yellow-bellied sapsucker, wild turkey, black bear, various species of squirrel, and the white-tailed deer. The tree crown is very dense, making it valuable for shade, and the species provides nest sites for many mammal species.
The live oak is the larval host plant for the hairstreak butterfly and oakworm moth.
Live oak wood is hard, heavy, and difficult to work with, but very strong. In the days of wooden ships, live oaks were the preferred source of the framework timbers of the ship, using the natural trunk and branch angles for their strength. The frame of USS Constitution was constructed from southern live oak wood harvested from St. Simons Island, Georgia, and the density of the wood grain allowed it to survive cannonade, thus earning it the nickname “Old Ironsides”. Even today, the U.S. Navy continues to own extensive live oak tracts.
Native Americans extracted a cooking oil from the acorns, used all parts of live oak for medicinal purposes, leaves for making rugs, and bark for dyes. The roots form starchy, edible tubers that people in past centuries harvested and fried like potatoes for human consumption.
Southern live oak is cultivated for shade and as an ornamental. Care is relatively easy, as it requires very little watering while it is young. After it is four to five feet tall, watering can be forgotten, and no more care is required. It is long-lived; trees in excess of 500 years were once common.
(Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)