Noble live oaks

Monday, April 18, 2011

Live oaks, such as this one at Maclay Gardens
can live hundreds of years.

 Majestic is a description usually reserved for mountain peaks and California redwoods, but I vote to attribute the adjective to the native live oak as well. Truly grand live oaks are few and far between in South Florida, given our development and storms. There are a couple of wonderful live oaks at Fairchild that have been graced with epiphytes in addition to their natural coating of resurrection fern; there’s a splendid oak on San Remo that pulls my car by it often just so I may admire it; there’s the big one at the Deering Estate at Cutler, which is the center of an Indian burial site. The Council Oak on the Seminole reservation in Hollywood still stands near US 1 and Stirling Road, albeit surrounded by a parking lot.

Live oaks can reach 80 feet tall and 120 feet wide. Their limbs want to grow horizontally, and lower limbs will touch the ground and then turn upright.  The city of Orlando has allowed the oaks about Lake Eola to retain their horizontal limbs.

I saw several majestic live oaks last weekend at Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park in Tallahassee, and marveled at their girth and the reach of their branches. The Maclay oaks are draped in gauzy Spanish moss, as are many of the garden’s trees, and this creates a lovely silver sparkle in sunlight.

Here in South Florida, our live oaks (Quercus virginiana) are nearly evergreen, dropping leaves briefly in spring before acquiring new ones. The flowers are wind pollinated, and small acorns are produced in the fall. Acorns were so abundant last year that they created what is called a mast year, thought to be an effort on the part of the trees to have some nuts sprout and make it to maturity before squirrels and birds can eat them all. The nuts began falling in September and still were pinging on the metal roof in late January.

With deeply furrowed dark gray bark, live oaks offer myriad insects places to hide, and that draws insect-eating birds, such as warblers and vireos. The oak also is a host for the White M Hairstreak butterfly, the Red-banded Hairstreak and Horace’s Duskywing butterfly.

Oaks cast a light shade that's perfect for orchids, ferns and bromeliads. They're thought to be slow-growing, but if you fertilize with a palm special they will grow surprisingly fast. A fern-y groundcover will allow the fallen leaves to serve as a natural mulch. 

It's a truly noble tree, and should be given the space and reverence it deserves.