The live oak is a majestic-looking tree with long, heavy, spreading branches that form an impressive canopy. An evocative image of the Southern culture, live oak trees offer a dramatic and picturesque image within the landscape. The tree is commonly found as a centerpiece in parks, and lining historic streets of small towns throughout the southern U.S.
Live oak trees can grow very large, reaching heights of up to 80 feet tall. They can often spread wider than their height, reaching widths of up to 120 feet. The leaves are tough and leathery, 2 to 5 inches in length, oval in appearance and dark green in color. The flowers of the tree form in thin, strand-like clusters that are relatively inconspicuous. The branches of the tree grow low on the trunk and stretch outward in all directions, becoming very thick and long. The bark is rough, deeply furrowed and dark brown. The fruit of the tree consists of acorns are approximately 3/4 inch to 1 1/4 inch in length.
Young live oak trees grow quickly, putting on as much as 3 feet of new growth and 1 inch of trunk diameter every year. In most areas of the country, live oak trees keep their leaves year-round, although they may drop their leaves in the most northern areas of their range. Older live oak trees often harbor epiphytic plants such as mistletoe or Spanish moss. Live oak trees can live over 100 years.
Found predominantly in the southern and western coastal regions, live oak trees grow best in USDA hardiness zones 7 through 10. Live oak trees are frequently found growing in scrub lands, sandy flats and maritime hammocks. The tree is very abundant and is often the dominant tree species within these regions.
Live oak trees prefer moist, acid soils made up of sand, clay or loam. However, the tree is extremely tolerant of drought conditions. The tree will grow in partial shade but prefers full sun. It is also very tolerant of salt within the air, and moderately tolerant of salt within the soil. Live oak trees tend to have shallow roots. Because of this, along with their immense size, live oak trees should be planted well away from walkways, driveways and buildings, as the roots and branches may threaten the structure.
Historically, live oak timbers were used for building wooden sailing vessels. The large, curved branches of the live oak were perfectly suited for the curved members of the ship hulls. The hull of the USS Constitution is made of Georgia live oak, the strength of which contributed to the ship's nickname "Old Ironsides." The wood was also used for making tools, wagon wheels and furniture. The bark was used for tanning leather and the acorns, once soaked to release the tannins within, were used for food.
Today, while the wood is still used for furniture and fuel, live oak is primarily an ornamental plant, often used as a centerpiece within the landscape. The acorns of live oak trees are an outstanding food source for a variety of animals including turkey, quail, ducks, squirrels, raccoons and deer.