By Les Harrison, Wakulla County Extension Director
While Wakulla County’s residents are among the fortunate who did not suffer the recent blizzard’s ill effects and brutal results, there still has been some cold weather. The local deciduous trees accurately reflect this seasonal stress.
It is correct to say the shorter days are the impetus for the leaf loss on most hardwood trees, but the subfreezing temperature and gusty winds finished off any stragglers.
Sweet gums, maples, dogwoods, and many others are starkly exposed to the elements.
This annual unveiling reveals some curious contrast in the local landscape, be it manicured or untended. Along with the evergreen cedars and pines, there is a stately exception to the winter’s effects on hardwood trees.
Live oak trees have a full complement of leaves and show no effect from the recent chilly weather. Often used as a generic term for any oak which does not lose its foliage during winter, the most often identified species in this region is Quercus virginiana or the Southern Live Oak.
This is a large, sprawling picturesque tree which is commonly crowned with Spanish moss or resurrection ferns and strongly reminiscent of images of the Old South. Live oaks are one of the broadest spreading of the oaks, providing huge areas of deep, inviting shade.
Capable of reaching 40 to 60 feet in height with a 60 to 100 foot spread and usually possessing many sinuously curved trunks and branches, the live oak is an impressive sight for any large-scale landscape or natural area. An amazingly durable American native, it can measure its lifetime in centuries if properly located and cared for in the landscape.
Unlike water or laurel oaks which are common in Wakulla County, the live oak has deep roots which support its expansive structure. It also is unattractive to the gall wasp which inflict bulbous knots other oak species locally.
Its best growth performance is in moist, acidic soil, sand, loam, or clay, but the tree is exceptionally adapted to surviving droughts. This tree also tolerates alkaline soils as well, which is important in coastal areas like Wakulla County.
Young trees grow three feet each year and the trunk adds about one-inch in diameter annually under ideal conditions. Once established, live oaks will thrive in almost any location and they have very good wind resistance.
These oaks provide a multitude of benefits to the native wildlife. The expansive branches offer shelter and nesting opportunities for a variety of birds.
The acorns offer a high energy food source for deer, raccoons and other mammals. The heavy shade produced under the branches suppresses undergrowth and affords an easily maintained clearing for anyone wishing to enjoy the shelter.
Over time, water can accumulate in cavities between the trunks. While this feature may benefit animals, it accelerates the decay and decline of this tree.
When hollow spaces within the trunks result, the weight of the branches will split this tree. Though the standing portion will remain green for a year or more, it will ultimately die.
Live oaks were once an important part of ship building in north Florida. The hard, dense lumber is resistant to marine worms so many sailing ship’s hulls were constructed of live oak.
Today this native tree is appreciated for its many other qualities, even in the dead of winter.