The beautiful, durable live oak - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

The beautiful, durable live oak

By Steve Phillips – bio | email

BILOXI, MS  (WLOX) - The magnolia is the state tree of Mississippi, but many South Mississippi residents would argue that another species deserves consideration. Live oaks are a favorite tree along the coast.

The scientific name for the species is "Quercus Virginianas." The more common name is "live oak" or "Southern live oak."

They are majestic, storm-tested and most certainly picturesque.

The "12 Oaks" estate in Ocean Springs now belongs to the Land Trust of the Mississippi Coastal Plain.

Thick, sturdy branches extend from the centuries old live oaks like tentacles from some giant sea creature. Mature live oak trees spark glowing descriptions.

Gary Bachman is a horticulture expert with the MSU Extension Service.

"Majestic, massive and beautiful. When you think of live oaks, some of the first images most folks will have is like the old antebellum South, with the driveways with the live oaks lining them," said Bachman.

The antebellum Old South may be history, but such driveways still exist. Along front beach in Ocean Springs, an impressive array of live oaks thrive; evergreen sentinels adding natural beauty to this beach front estate.

"It's called live oak because we don't see it drop its leaves like a deciduous, normal deciduous tree. It is deciduous though. In the springtime, as new leaves push out, the old leaves fall off. This occurs very quickly, so we never notice it," said Bachman.

Live oaks possess both beauty and brawn. These trees are notoriously tough. Found along the coastline from Texas to Virginia, they have evolved to withstand the strongest of hurricanes.

"It's got that short trunk on it before it starts branching. And then the branches come out horizontally, which is a very strong attachment to the trunk. So, it's able to withstand a lot of the storm forces that come in. The wood is one of the densest woods we have in North America. I was reading that a cubic foot of live oak wood, once it's dried weighs 55 pounds," Bachman explained.

That's why wood from the live oaks was used to build military ships. Nowadays, these signature trees are more likely to be appreciated for their beauty, rather than their utility.

"They've become part of our fabric here on the coast. They're just part of what we are down here."

City of Biloxi arborist, Eric Nolan, says many coast natives have a special affinity for these beautiful-but-tough trees.

"The way they grow and spread. I think everybody grew up underneath one, picnicking along the beach or walking along Beauvoir and seeing the pretty oak trees there. They do really well in our sandy soils. They tend to put a big, wide root base down which makes them real stable, and they can take the wind and water. And they tend to be really salt tolerant too, so that's good, right next to our beach," says Nolan.

Visit the Gulf Park campus of USM in Long Beach and you can see one of the most famous live oaks on the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast: The friendship oak.

It's believed to be around 500 years old, which means the tree was a sapling back when Christopher Columbus sailed this way.

Joanna Hudson has long appreciated the live oak. This tireless Garden Club member encourages more people to plant live oaks, like the one she planted in honor of her grandson 18 years ago.

"I don't know, I just, it was a thing that just hit my heart. That I love live oak trees, and I think they have a place in our world. If people would plant them, it would replace some of them. And it will keep the erosion out of your yard. And it's a cheap landscape. They are messy, but if you use a mulching lawn mower and let it go back into the ground, you don't have to fertilize under an oak tree," she said.

She wishes more folks would appreciate trees in general and live oaks in particular. She looks for the individual beauty in each one.

"They are just like people. They each have their own characteristics, their own design. You'll never find two oaks alike. The good maker know what he was doing when he made 'em. And he put them in places where we should put them back."

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