An Ode to the Oak

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These iconic trees are deeply rooted in American culture.

By Nancy Dorman-Hickson

Oak trees enjoy a storied history in America, especially the magnificent live oak. “Oaks are one of the [tree] species people are most attracted to,” explains John Kush, research fellow at the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences at Auburn University, when asked to comment on the tree’s enduring popularity. “The oak tree, whether red oak, live oak, white oak or others, was there when America was being settled by Europeans.”

The oak remains the most abundant group of hardwood trees in North America. Defining how many oak species there are is tough, Kush notes. “There are hundreds of them,” he says. “They can cross-pollinate, so you get varieties of oaks that are difficult to identify. There are probably 60 to 70 in the South.”

How quickly oaks grow “depends on the species,” according to Kush. “Those that have adapted to drier sites will grow maybe a quarter of an inch in diameter a year. Some live oaks, water oaks and oaks near a body of water will grow a half to almost an inch in diameter a year.” The tree’s height also depends on the site where it grows. “Drier site oaks are going to get [nearly] as wide as they are tall,” Kush says of oaks that don’t have a lot of other trees around them. “Oak species that grow along streams will grow to 100 to 150 feet tall. They’ll grow 4 to 5 feet a year in height.” 

Oaks have impressive longevity and can live up to 300 years. “The faster growing trees have a tendency to die young, and the slower growing trees live longer,” he notes.

Kush says that the post oak is his favorite, but it’s the live oak’s beauty that is frequently praised. “You’ve got to love the live oaks,” Kush says. “It’s not quite an evergreen tree—the waxy, dark green leaves will fall off in spring, but new leaves form. They don’t shed in winter.” Live oaks often have a crown that can span up to 40 to 50 feet or more on each side and with its spreading branches gracefully dipping to the ground, draped by Spanish moss, it boasts a picturesque beauty beloved by photographers. 

Island Icons

In 1994, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher added an oak tree to the resort grounds.

“The live oak is my favorite species of tree, but it wasn’t always that way,” says William de Vos, consulting arborist for Sea Island. “I’ve worked all over the United States caring for trees, but after spending so much time on the oaks at Sea Island, I find live oaks humbling and inspiring. They exude such strength and stateliness.” 

Known for their spreading limbs, towering canopies and Spanish moss, the long-living trees grace Sea Island at two significant sites: the Avenue of Oaks, which lines the drive to The Lodge at Sea Island, and the Presidential and commemorative oaks. 

“Live oaks were the tree of choice in the antebellum South because their wide canopies created a pleasant shady drive,” explains resort Archivist Mimi Rogers. The Avenue of Oaks has accrued admirers since its inception. Now the site of the golf course, this spot was once Retreat Plantation, known for growing Sea Island cotton. Anna Page King inherited the cotton plantation from her father, William Page, and her husband was the one to plant a line of trees along the road. “Originally the driveway for horse-drawn carriages was between the oaks,” Rogers says. “Today, there are one-way lanes on either side.” 

The first Presidential Oak planting came later on, with a 1928 visit from President Calvin Coolidge just two months after The Cloister’s debut. “To commemorate the visit, President Coolidge was asked to plant a live oak tree, starting the tradition that continues to the present day,” Rogers says. From that first tree to the most recent, planted by President Bill Clinton in 2012, Rogers notes that all of them were planted by the president himself, with one exception: the President Dwight D. Eisenhower oak. “President and Mrs. Eisenhower visited Sea Island soon after World War II, before he was elected president,” Rogers says. “The oak was planted in his honor once he was elected.”

Great Britain is also represented, with trees planted by former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher (1994) and Tony Blair (2004). Thatcher was reportedly very enthusiastic about the endeavor, shoveling and patting around her tree with a flourish.

It is not just presidents and prime ministers who have left their marks. First ladies are also represented among the trees, as is royalty like Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, who planted an oak with her husband in 1952. Another tribute oak includes one to honor the employees of Sea Island. 

“The folks at Sea Island take their oak trees very seriously,” de Vos says. “The trees themselves are one of the most important things to the area.” While trees are frequently sacrificed during construction at other sites, the resort places a special value on its wooden residents. “Often, developers and owners find it cheaper to cut down trees and start new,” he says. “But Sea Island took great effort to move the mature trees on the property into a nursery while the new hotel was being built, maintain and monitor their health and finally have them transplanted back.”

Recognizing the Oak

The newly restored USS Constitution on a visit to the Sea Island area in 1931

Yet Sea Island isn’t the only place the recognizes the significance and special characteristics of the oak. The live oak is Georgia’s official state tree, and following a National Arbor Day Foundation contest in 2004, the species became America’s national tree as well. From the very first day of the contest, the oak was the clear favorite of the 21 candidates. “We undertook this vote to remind Americans of just how important trees are to us all, and to emphasize the history and grandeur of our trees,” said John Rosenow, founder of the Arbor Day Foundation, when the contest ended. 

“The oak tree will now be as much a symbol of America as Thanksgiving Day, Old Glory, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and the bald eagle,” said Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a supporter of the contest, back in 2004. 

The mighty oak’s great qualities are numerous. It is a great shady tree, provides year-round green foliage or, in some species, beautiful autumnal shades. The species grows in almost all planting zones in the U.S. and adapts to most soil conditions. Live oaks also have a tight grain and strong resistance to rot, making it a durable wood perfect for ships, cabinets and more. 

“Live oak was harvested on St. Simons during the 1790s to construct the first frigates for America’s Navy,” Rogers says. After the American Revolution, the country needed a new navy. “Because of its density, the wood was considered the best choice for the ships’ framing,” she says. St. Simons Island live oak was used to build the 44-gun USS Constitution, which earned its famous nickname, “Old Ironsides,” after an American sailor saw the ship’s hull repel British canon shot during the War of 1812. 

Helping Mother Nature

The Avenue of Oaks used to serve as a driveway for horse-drawn carriages.

Beyond their beauty, oaks also benefit their surrounding ecosystems. “Deer and turkeys as well as small wildlife, such as squirrels, love the acorns [oaks provide],” Kush says. “The acorns are very nutritious, high in protein, and very good nutritional content in both the white oak group and the red oak groups.” 

The oak is also good at saving soil. “Quite often oak trees have really wide crowns, compared to other trees,” Kush explains. “They intercept rainfall, which then slows its impact when it hits the ground.” Oaks also boast extensive root systems that help them hold soil in place to prevent overland flow. However, Kush cautions, “Many of the oak species need prescribed fire to reduce other tree species that compete with the oak.” He also warns that we are losing oak species because of this. In earlier, less populated days, natural fire from lightning kept forests healthy. “Then in the 1920s, the United States became very conscious about fires,” Kush says. “We pretty much put a stop to them. We’re slowly getting back to prescribed fires.” 

After 46 years as an arborist, de Vos recognizes more than most the immeasurable worth of trees. “I find we are truly their guests; we need them far more than they need us.”

Legends and Lore

According to Kush, “probably the most storied oak is the live oak.” Around the U.S., conversations about oaks can heat up over which region boasts the oldest, the biggest and the most legendary. There is the Angel Oak on Johns Island near Charleston, South Carolina, which is said to be 400 years old and stand at 66.5 feet, while its branches cover an area of 17,000 square feet. Also in the South is The Big Oak in Thomasville, Georgia, which is one of the earliest trees registered, and the Lover’s Oak in Brunswick, Georgia, which is estimated to be more than 900 years old. Meanwhile, the Big Tree in Rockport, Texas, is said to be the largest oak in the United States, and the Friendship Oak in Long Beach, Mississippi, is said to grant everlasting friendships to those that step beneath its shade. 

While some of these may just be legends, one thing is certain about oaks: They are a hugely important part of not just Southern society, but America as a whole.


Oak Tree Trivia

The young trees in the Avenue of Oaks were grown from parented acorns, now planted to take their place.

In Greek and Norse mythology, the oak tree is sacred. 

There are more than 600 species of oaks worldwide. One survey indicates 78 wild oak species are endangered.

Oaks can be found in every U.S. state except for Alaska.

Oaks are members of the genus “quercus,” a Latin word derived from a Celtic word meaning “fine tree.”

Legends state that King Arthur’s round table was made from a gigantic piece of an ancient oak tree.

Oak trees grow slowly; it is estimated that within 80 years, they will grow no more than 2 feet in diameter.

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