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Virginia Live Oak
Virginia Live Oak
Virginia Live Oak, photographed at Delray Oaks Natural Area, Delray Beach, Palm Beach County, in May 2015
Virginia Live Oak

Virginia live oaks, scientifically known as Quercus virginiana, aren't just trees. They're living works of art. Incredibly important works of art both in terms of the natural world and culturally.

They are in some ways symbols of the South, especially when curtains of Spanish moss decorate their limbs. Virginia live oaks, or simply live oaks, are ubiquitious along the coastal plain from Texas to Virginia. They are Florida natives, found in all but a handful of counties.

Live oaks can be massive, growing as tall as 80 feet, with a flat crown that spreads 100 feet to as much as 150 feet in diameter. The leaves are unlobed, unlike northern oaks, irregularly shaped and a glossy green. The name comes from the appearance that it is always green, but it does drop older leaves in the spring as new ones come on. The bark is roughly furroughed and light gray to black in color.

Large live oaks can survive fire as long as the crown is not burned. Young live oaks can resprout after fire.

Just looking at the tree will tell you how important it is. Live oak provides a place to grow for myriad epiphyte species (air plants), including the resurrection ferns that cover the limbs on the tree shown at left and below center. Spanish moss and other air plants find homes on these trees. Birds, as you might expect, eat the acorns — blue jays in particular love acorns so much that they are credited with spreading the species throughout North America after the last ice age. Squirrels, naturally, feast off the trees, as do black bears and white-tailed deer. Live oak also provides shelter and shade for many species.

Virginia Live Oak

Butterflies and bees are attracted to live oaks for the nectar their flowers provide. White m hairstreak, horace duskywing and northern hairstreak butterflies and consular oakworm moth use the trees as hosts.

Live oaks have little utility as timber, although they were, once upon a time, used in ship building. The first publicly owned timber lands in the U.S. were stands of live oak bought to preserve them for that purpose, circa 1799. Its wood is the heaviest of all oaks and resistant to rot and disease. The U.S.S. Constitution, "Old Ironsides" was made from live oak. Live oaks were a source of food — young acorns are said to be tasty, low in protein but high in fat and fiber. The roots of young trees form starchy tubers that were sliced and fried like potatoes. Native americans used it for food, tools, dyes and medicines. The Houma used it to treat dysentery. The Seminoles used it to treat aches and pains. The Choctaw made paints from it.

Virginia live oak is a member of Fagaceae, the beech and oak family. Other common names: scrub live oak, southern live oak.

Photographs by David Sedore
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Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without their express permission.