The Mighty Southern Live Oak Tree

The live oak in the front yard of Frampton Plantation is estimated to be around 300 years old. Photo by Lowcountry Tourism Commission.

When you think of the south, you conjure images of the mighty live oak trees dripping in Spanish moss. These magnificent trees stand sentry around homes and lead the way down country lanes. The specimens that surround Frampton Plantation House have been around for 300 years. In fact, it was noted that after the original house was burned during the Civil War, the home was rebuilt in a different spot between four live oaks. All four trees are still alive and thriving today. In fact, these very trees have been reaching for the sun since c.1743.

Picnic under the southern live oaks in the backyard of Frampton Plantation Visitors Center. We’re conveniently located off I-95, at Exit 33 in Yemassee. Photo by Carmen Pinckney.

Live Oak trees are always up for company. Along the southern coast, live oaks live life beside Spanish moss and resurrection fern. Neither plant causes harm, they both feed from humidity and air. Resurrection fern grows along the tops of branches, turning green during rain and humidity, then brown when the air is dry. Spanish moss drapes gracefully from branches, feeding from water and nutrients found in the air.

Live oak branches tend to grow horizontally, dipping down then reaching back up toward the sun. This Tomotley Plantation tree is no exception. Photo by CJ Brown.

The branches of southern live oaks tend to grow horizontally, spreading across the landscape. Being a product of the south, I can attest to the fact that they make great climbing trees. If you were lucky enough to grow up with a live oak in your yard, there were always hordes of kids who wanted to climb, swing or picnic in the shade of these magnificent trees.  

Spanish moss and live oaks make a perfect backdrop for a Lowcountry wedding. Cotton Hall Plantation is available for just such an occasion. Photo by Cotton Hall.

Live oaks can grow to a height of 80 feet high. Given the room to grow, they can spread 100 feet wide. They grow at a rate of 13 – 24 inches per year. They grow in sun and shade and will thrive in just about any kind of soil. They can be found along the beach, deep in the forest, and everywhere in between. Mature live oaks can have a diameter of 6 feet. Some of the oldest live oaks are estimated to be several hundred to more than a thousand years old.

This 300 year old live oak stands watch in front of the Frampton Plantation house. Photo by Lowcountry Tourism Commission.

Southern live oak trees are nearly evergreen. They replace their leaves sporadically, so we never notice their shedding process. They produce sweet acorns that are a favorite food source of both birds and mammals. Wild turkey and deer are especially fond of this delicacy.

While live oaks can be found from Virginia to Florida and as far west as Texas and Oklahoma, the Southern live oak grows best in salty soils along the coast. Like most southerners, this tree is particularly fond of warm temperatures and salty breezes.

This lovely home on Hampton Street in Walterboro has a yard complete with a live oak. Photo by Lowcountry Tourism Commission.

The wood from southern live oaks is very dense and strong. It was once a preferred wood for shipbuilding. The naval vessel USS Constitution was made from the wood of live oaks. Repeated cannon fire could not destroy the ship during the War of 1812. The British cannons literally bounced off the live oak hull of the ship. The ship was nicknamed “Old Ironsides” after it survived the attack. Many older homes are floored with wood from these magnificent trees. Oak flooring is durable and takes on a golden hue with age and wear.  Structural beams and posts were also made from the strong wood of live oaks.

Live oak alleys can be seen throughout the Lowcountry. Some of the most popular can be found on Edisto Island and Lady’s Island, Beaufort. Many older plantation properties are distinguished by their alley of live oaks. Planted on both sides of lanes, the branches reach across and form a canopy across the roadways. Old Sheldon Road is a wonderful example of a live oak canopy. Nestled between Yemassee and Beaufort, this road leads to the Old Sheldon Church Ruins.

Old Sheldon road connects with Cotton Hall Road. This canopied road is home to several plantation entrances with live oak alleys. Both Tomotley and Cotton Hall Plantation entrances are visible. Yemassee’s McPhersonville Road is another great place to view a canopy.

Iconic oak alleys can be found on the route to Edisto Beach. ACE Basin and Botany Bay Plantation Wildlife Management Areas both have canopied entrances. They can be accessed via Highway 174.

Most of Bluffton’s Hwy 46 is covered in a live oak canopy. Pinckney Colony is lined with aged oaks as well.

The Beaufort Sea Islands are also great places to spend the day driving under the oaks. Coffin Point, Meridian and Lands End Road are good examples.

Savannah National Wildlife Refuge and Hwy 17 just south of Ridgeland are good spots in Jasper County to view the trees. Colleton County’s Donnelley Wildlife Management Area is another great place to drive through and see live oaks. Hampton County’s Webb Wildlife Management Area also has many examples of southern live oaks.

Resurrection fern is best seen after a good rain. This live oak can be found in the backyard of Frampton Plantation Visitors Center in Yemassee. Photo by Carmen Pinckney.
Resurrection fern and Spanish moss intermingle along the branches of this southern live oak tree that can be found in the front yard of Frampton Plantation Visitors Center. Photo by Carmen Pinckney.

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