If you have ever traveled to Savannah or Charleston, one thing you are sure to have noticed are the large oak trees lining the streets. These trees are called live oaks and they are the state tree of Georgia. Live oaks are native to the sandy soils near the coast, but they can also grow in the moist, rich 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 appropriate for small sites. The trees have large 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 in height a year, and its trunk can grow 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 an 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 a live oak was the preferred source for the framework for the ship. 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. The waxy leaves increase their tolerance to the salt water spray which gives them the ability to thrive along salt water marshes and beaches. Although the trees prefer the milder climates of the coastal plain, they 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, live oaks are remarkably hardy and can survive in almost any location. Although they prefer sandy, loamy soils, they can tolerate more compacted clay soils. Once established, the trees are tolerant to drought conditions. They prefer to be in full sun, but can tolerate some shade. Live oaks can survive construction activities and root damage better than most trees. The deep roots of the trees and their strong wood increase their resistance to toppling over in high wind. These trees need periodic pruning to develop proper trunk and branch structure early in their lives. 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 Gwinnett County. He can be contacted at 678-377-4010 or firstname.lastname@example.org.