If you have ever been to Savannah or Charleston, one thing you are sure to have noticed is the large oak trees lining the streets. These trees are called live oaks (Quercus virginiana) and are the state tree of Georgia. Live oaks are native to the sandy soils near the coast but can also grow in the moist, fertile soils of woodland areas, along stream banks, and in a variety of other site conditions.
Live oaks are magnificent trees for street plantings and large estates, but they are not well suited for small properties. The trees have broad spreading horizontal limbs with trunks up to six feet in diameter. They have the potential to grow 40 to 80 feet in height, 60 to 100 feet in width, and can live for centuries. During the earlier years of the tree’s life, it can grow two to three feet a year, and up to one inch in width per year. They should be planted in large open areas, such as parks and large yards, to accommodate their wide-spreading limbs. The tree is evergreen in warmer areas, but it drops its leaves in colder climates. Its wood is one of the heaviest of the native hardwoods and can weigh as much as 55 pounds per cubic foot. In the days of wooden ships, the wood from live oak was the preferred source for the framework for them. Live oak trees provided much of the lumber used in the construction of the U.S.S. Constitution — “Old Ironsides.”
Birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and deer love the sweet-tasting acorns of the live oak; a mature tree can produce thousands of them. The waxy leaves increase their tolerance to the saltwater spray, which gives them the ability to thrive along saltwater marshes and beaches. They prefer the milder climates of the coastal plain but will also grow in North Georgia. However, the live oaks will not grow to the size they can become in the coastal plains due to the colder winters and clay soils in the northern part of the state. Once established, they are remarkably hardy and can survive in almost any location. Although live oaks prefer sandy, loamy soils, they can tolerate more compacted clay soils.
Once established, they are very tolerant of drought conditions. The trees prefer to be in full sun but can tolerate some shade. It can survive construction activities and root damage better than most trees. The deep roots of the tree and its durable wood increase its resistance to toppling over in the high wind. Live oaks generally have minimal pest problems.
If you decide to plant a live oak, remember it will grow very large, so in small yards, choose another tree that will better fit your needs. If you have the space to grow these trees, then in time, you will have a beautiful gigantic shade tree.
Timothy Daly is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent with UGA Extension Gwinnett. He can be contacted at 678-377-4011or firstname.lastname@example.org