Quercus virginiana - Southern live oak
It is always 20 degrees cooler under the live oaks, like entering an air-conditioned room. The dogs and I walk through the neighborhood twice daily. When it is hot we choose those streets with the greatest number of live oaks, often switching from one side of the street to the other to take advantage of the deepest shade.
We live in Port Orange, a city in the Daytona Beach, Florida area. Established in 1867 on the Halifax River, it now has 50,000 inhabitants and probably enough trees to landscape a good portion of the Gobi Desert. Port Orange has just received its 21st consecutive award as a "Tree City", a recognition granted by the National Arbor Day Foundation. The city’s seal is, quite simply, a spreading live oak and the date: 1867.
There are many native and naturalized trees here : oak, longleaf pine and sabel palm in abundance, magnolia, poplar, sycamore, tulip-poplar, and cottonwood, sweetgum and hornbeam, blackgum and persimmon, elm, red maple and hackberry. Added to that are those designated as "landscaping" trees : golden plum, pigeon plum, fig, tamarind, and mulberry, avacado and mango, royal palm and thatch palm. But the king of this suburban forest is the live oak.
The individual tree crowns often meet overhead, forming canopies on secondary roads. They drip with garlands of Spanish moss, stretch heavy gnarled limbs over incredibly large areas. The trunks are massive, covered with thick, deeply ridged dark brown bark. The leaves are dark green and shiny on the upper surface, dull gray-green underneath. This sounds somber, but live oaks are things of light and beauty.
The trunk branches into four or five sections just a few feet above the ground, giving the tree an openness. The leaves are small for such a large tree, only 2" to 5" long by 1/2 to 2-1/2" wide. There is always a shifting, speckled light penetrating the canopy. Live oaks are persistent, meaning evergreen or "not deciduous" which, in the plant kingdom, means that they keep their leaves all year long rather than losing them during the cold or dormant season.
While it is true that the live oak has foliage twelve months of the year, it is constantly shedding its leaves. As leaves age and fall, they are replaced by new leaves. This is common with trees and other plants native to the wet tropics or semi-tropics such as Florida. It is this characteristic of the live oak which is making it unpopular with suburban dwellers.
I have two live oaks on my property, my neighbor to the left has five or six, while one neighbor across the street has another. The land behind us, undeveloped, looks like a rain forest. It is a tangle of oaks, pines, and palms towering overhead, an undergrowth that is mainly palmetto and giant ferns, the two sections literally laced together with Spanish moss descending from above and woody creepers mounting from below.
It necessary to constantly rake and bag fallen oak leaves and pine needles. Or I should be constantly gathering up the fallen debris, because – and I am not ashamed to confess it – I do not always keep my property as well-groomed as my neighbors keep theirs.
I do fairly well with what faces the street. My lawnmower is self-mulching, which means that most of the leathery brown oak leaves are pulverized whenever I cut the grass. There is a colony of squirrels nesting in my live oak – between the acorns from the oak and the pine nuts from a cluster of pines I have nearby, the squirrels seem to be thriving, even multiplying.
But my back yard - to the despair of the neighbors - is left unkempt. The grass gets mowed whenever it is a bit more than ankle-high, unless there is a crop of wild flowers blooming. I am the only one without a fence across the back property line to hold the wild stuff at bay. My neighbors spray weed killer along their fence line several times a year to keep the ferns from creeping in. I don’t. I have moles, and I have a 4-ft. black snake who eats moles. I often see raccoons and anteaters on the back patio – the dogs have learned by now they can do nothing about it so they pretend those animals are not there. A great horned owl lives in a sentinel pine somewhere behind us; I often hear him hooting in the gray hours of early morning.
A mature live oak reaches between 65 and 85 feet in height. The wood is one of the heaviest of native hardwoods; air dried, it weighs 55 pounds per cubic foot. That’s a lot of weight. The trunk flares at the base to support the tree and is buttressed with a root structure that bulges above the surface of the ground for 10 to 15 feet around the tree. This makes it difficult to cut the grass under the tree. If there is any grass, which leads to another problem.
Homes with live oaks generally do not have a beautiful smooth green lawn because grass does not grow well under live oaks. I keep the canopy on mine trimmed fairly high so enough sunlight gets in to encourage the grass but my lawn is patchy, at best. My houseproud neighbors want to remove their live oaks so they can have lawns like golfing greens.
I know all the big live oaks in my neighborhood. A number of them are disappearing, being shredded into wood chips. A new neighbor trimmed her live oaks back so drastically they are practically non-existent, claiming she is allergic to trees. What she apparently doesn’t know is that live oaks are fast-growing trees. Hers are starting to branch out again; they will have sweeping canopies in another year or so.
Port Orange has regulations to safeguard the trees. A live oak may not be removed, even if diseased, unless it is replaced with an equal amount of trees. This can be ridiculous when a really big tree comes down. One resident was allowed to remove a giant that he claimed was threatening his roof (we are in a hurricane area here). Based on the circumference of the trunk, he had to replace it with 39 young trees with trunks no less than 2" in diameter. He decided to plant holly trees because he can keep them trimmed to a small size. In my mind it is not the same. Not the same at all.