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Few tree species so characterize the Deep South as the stocky, wide-spreading live oak (Quercus virginiana), topped with a shiny, green crown dripping with gray?green garlands of moss. The massively branched live oaks lend a gracious elegance to Southern landscapes. Texas is fortunate enough to count this tree species among its native flora.
Live oak is probably the most prominent of a relatively few hardwoods, or broadleaf trees, in Texas which maintain a coat of green leaves the year round. Within the Texas Hill Country and along the Gulf Coast, the evergreen canopies of live oaks provide welcome accents to the predominant browns and grays of the winter landscape. Actually, live oaks are not truly evergreen as they drop all of their old leaves as the new ones emerge in early spring.
Live oak leaves are very distinctive. The leathery leaves, 2- to 5-inches long, are oval with rounded ends. They are shiny and dark green on top, and paler on the underside. Leaves will have smooth margins or be slightly jagged. Like all of the oaks, however, the leaves are arranged alternately along the stem.
Like the rest of the oaks, the winter buds of live oak are composed of many overlapping scales and are clustered at the ends of branches. This clustering helps to separate non-evergreen oaks from other tree species when identifying them during the winter months.
Live oak produces sweet?tasting acorns that, like white oaks, mature in one year. True "red oaks" produce bitter acorns, which take two years to mature. Live oak acorns are a preferred food of wild turkeys and many other animals as well.
The species has seen extensive use in landscaping. A colonnade of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss is stereotypical of the old plantation, but today, many streets in Texas towns and cities also feature overhanging arches of live oak branches. The live oak's tolerance of salinity and its resistance to salt spray make it a desirable species for landscapes near the coast. The state champion live oak is a specimen known as "big tree," which is found on the coast in Goose Island State Park near Rockport.
Oak wilt has focused much attention on live oaks, and may cause many to reconsider its future use in landscape applications in oak wilt areas such as the Texas hill country.
Other than its use in landscaping, the species has little commercial use today. In the days of sailing ships, though, the U.S. Navy purchased large holdings of live oak for exclusive use in the government's shipyards. The tree's arching, massive branches were highly valued for use as ship blocks, ribs and knees. The tough, hard wood has been used for hubs and wooden cogs. Live oak bark was once used in the production of tannin, and Indians used oil made from the tree's acorns for cooking.
Seldom over 50 to 60 feet in height, mature trees may, however, attain diameters of four to six feet or more, and crown spreads of up to 150 feet. Live oak is very long lived even for an oak, but statements that trees can live thousands of years probably reflects a significant amount of "hog wash." Given favorable growing conditions, such as found on rich hummocks and low ridges near the coast, live oaks are capable of growing to considerable size in a relatively short time. A live oak in Liberty County, Georgia measured 4-feet and 6-3/4 inches in diameter at a point three feet above the ground. It had a crown spread of a whopping 120 feet. One might assume that the tree, because of its large size, was extremely old, but its actual age was only 67 years.
Texas live oaks have presided over a smorgasbord of historical happenings in Texas, some much more pleasant to remember than others.
The Matrimonial Oak, a majestic live oak near San Saba, has provided years of sun-dappled shade in which many a winsome bride has united in holy matrimony with her handsome suitor. One of many legends associated with the Treaty Oak in Austin, the sole survivor of a group of live oaks known as the "Council Oaks," speaks of Indian maidens who brewed a "love tea" of its tender leaves. If they drank the tea while gazing at a full moon, their lovers would be true forever. Under the Masonic Oak near Brazoria, Anson Jones, who was to become the first Grand Master of Texas Masonic lodges, met with five other masons and took measures to establish a lodge of their order in Texas.
Other Texas live oaks have served as mustering and voting
sites, reference marks for towns, and campaign stops for Texas politicians.
The Rio Frio Landmark Oak was one of the two reference points for the
first town lot in Rio Frio. Until its relatively recent demise, the
Houston Campaign Oak in Marshall was recognized for providing the shade
under which Texas' first president, Sam Houston, proclaimed his platform
for a second term in the U.S. Senate to the citizens of Harrison County.