Quercus virginiana, commonly known as "Live oak", is an evergreen, or nearly evergreen, oak tree native to the southeastern United States. This is the iconic oak of the American South where expansive plantation allees were lined by Live oaks draped in Spanish moss languidly wafting in the breeze.

Live oaks vary from shrubby to large and spreading but typically a mature tree is 40 to 60 feet in height with a 60 to 100 foot spread. Their massive lower limbs sweep towards the ground and then curve up again. They are not only great in size but great in age as well. The Angel Oak of John's Island, South Carolina, USA, is thought to be one of the oldest living things east of the Mississippi River. It is over 1500 years old, making it a thousand years old when Columbus discovered the New World. It is 65 feet high with a spread of 160 feet, a circumference of nearly 25 feet, and covers 17,100 square feet of ground.

For centuries, the popularity of Live oaks has never waned, and they remain the tree of choice for Southern boulevards. But their massive size limits their use to only the largest properties and unfortunately all too often Live oaks are planted in an urban garden. This is rarely a problem for the first twenty years or so, but inevitably, they out-grow their space, raising sidewalks, driveways, and damaging plumbing and foundations and putting down such intense, year-round shade that virtually all other plants are excluded, leaving the garden with an overpowering Live oak and nothing else. And, just as inevitably, they will find their way into any nearby utility lines, making it necessary to cut them back, leaving a disfigured specimen.  Needless to say, the overwhelming first consideration with a Live oak must be siting and country properties are usually the most suitable.

Properly accommodated Live oaks are the ultimate shade tree, there's hardly anything their equal in that respect. They’re also sturdy and long-lived surviving storms and droughts and fires for centuries. For a wildlife friendly garden they are an ultimate contribution. Their heavy branching makes habitat for birds and mammals and the acorns provide bountiful mast year after year. The spring flowers are brown and inconspicuous. The leaves, being evergreen, lack color in autumn, yet are a handsome dark green, 4 to 8 inches long.  

Best growth is made in moist, acid soil, sand, loam or clay, but the tree is surprisingly adapted to drought, salt air and alkaline soil. Young trees grow three feet each year which is exceptional for an oak.

Aside from their great size, their other notable limitation, is climate adaptability. They cannot tolerate extremes of cold. In the US they grow throughout the Deep South and along the temperate coastal areas. They do well in the UK where they are on offer at several nurseries. They also do well in New Zealand and especially Australia. Look for them at better tree nurseries.


Live oak

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