Magazine article American Forests

Southern Comfort: Katrina Focused the World's Attention on These Trees, Beloved as a Symbol of Long Life and a Slower Pace

Magazine article American Forests

Southern Comfort: Katrina Focused the World's Attention on These Trees, Beloved as a Symbol of Long Life and a Slower Pace

Article excerpt

Old tobacco and cotton plantation causeways lined with trees. City parks and forested countrysides draped with Spanish moss. Images of the South are almost assuredly set against the backdrop of a spreading live oak. Whether they formed front yard playgrounds or ended a romantic evening, these oaks have made an indelible mark on southern culture since before our nation's founding

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What is it about Quercus virginiana van virginiana that make it such a strong and vibrant image? Is it the seemingly endless stretch of horizontal branches, the exotic appeal of moss-covered limbs shrouded in fog? Or perhaps the sense of enveloping comfort those large, sprawling limbs and huge canopies provide.

Whatever the allure, live oaks were the trees people thought of first after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. Fortunately the low-slung trees are suited for hurricane weather. While some live oaks were lost, many survived with just a battering.

"The 30-foot storm surge and 145 mph winds destroyed everything within reach ... Everything built by man was reduced to rubble, left as debris, tossed like a child's toy, or left as a foundation scar in the sand. Everything is gone.... except for the live oak trees, " Ed Macie, the U.S. Forest Service's regional urban forester, reported after a visit to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

What else could you expect from a species that boasts its own exclusive club? The Live Oak Society was born in response to a 1934 article by University of Southwestern Louisiana professor Edwin Lewis Stephens, who decided to make his data on the species official after numerous road trips to document locations and measurements.

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"I have been considering the live oak for some time and am coming to believe that the world does not realize what a splendid possession it holds in this tree," he wrote in the Louisiana Conservation Review. "Why do we not form a Louisiana Live Oak Association?"

It was a beginning quite similar to that of AMERICAN FORESTS' National Register of Big Trees, which was born in 1940 after forester Joseph Stearns decried the wholesale cutting of "our most magnificent remaining tree specimens." The current president of the Live Oak Society--the Seven Sisters in Lewisburg, Louisiana (so named by a former owner who was one of seven sisters)--is also the Register's national cochampion.

Since 1934 the Live Oak Society has grown to include more than 5,282 members--all trees, save one--throughout 14 states. The only member without branches is the society's acting chairman, Coleen Perilloux Landry, who has been maintaining the Society's information since 2001. She can still remember her first experiences with a live oak.

"Growing up at my family's house we had a live oak and my father put a swing on it and I remember soaring up into its branches," she says.

Childhood memories that feature live oaks are not uncommon for southerners; the species' long, low limbs and shady crowns comprise some of the world's longest-lived trees. An average one is known to have a life span of more than 200 years; foresters estimate the Seven Sisters at more than 1,200 years old.

In fact, the qualifications for becoming a member of the Live Oak Society include being a tree "whose age is not less than a hundred years," as Stephens put it. The Society had 45 founding members, including several (tree) vice presidents and a president. The first president was the Locke Breaux Oak in Taft, Louisiana, which reigned until its death in 1968 due to air and groundwater pollution.

The live oak's range sprawls like its limbs, with the trees commonly found from southwestern Virginia as far west and south as Oklahoma and Mexico. Also known as the evergreen oak, Quercus virginiana var. virginiana thrives in coastal areas with sandy soils and wooded areas along stream-banks and riverbeds. …

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