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Flora Fact: Under the Spreading Oak

Majestic live oaks shift shapes to fit the local landscape.

By Dyanne Fry Cortez

If you’ve spent any time at all in Texas, you have no doubt rested in the shade of a live oak tree.

Live oaks like it here. They are found in a wide range of natural and built environments. They can take different forms depending on circumstances and the age of the tree.

We see them on the coastal plains, bent and twisted by relentless sea breezes; in southern forests draped in Spanish moss; or as dignified street trees lining Houston sidewalks. On upland plateaus, live oaks may appear in shrubby clumps called mottes. We often see a big oak standing alone in a pasture, or perhaps a grove of three or four, offering shade for livestock on hot, sunny days.

Many an old farmhouse has a huge, spreading live oak nearby with a swing hung from a sturdy limb. Sometimes the swing isn’t needed.

Massive branches may swoop down to touch the ground, providing a friendly place to sit and contemplate the beauty of a magnificent tree.

Live oaks fill the pages of the book Famous Trees of Texas. The authors note that readers “might get the impression that most Famous Trees in Texas are live oaks” and go on to ask: “Could it really be that the most noteworthy events in the history of Texas just happened to occur within sight of just live oaks?” Well, yes.

Big Tree

One of the state’s best-known live oaks, the Big Tree at Goose Island State Park has a main trunk that measures 35 feet in circumference and a crown spread measuring 89 feet across.

Regardless of shape and size, live oaks have furrowed bark, dark brown acorns and an unusual habit of retaining green leaves all winter. If you see an oak with green leaves in January, chances are it’s a live oak.

Until recently, all live oaks in Texas were considered variants of one species, Quercus virginiana. Today, the escarpment or plateau live oak (Q. fusiformis) is recognized as a distinct species native to Texas, Oklahoma, and the Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua. Q. virginiana, sometimes referred to as the southern or coastal live oak, is found in coastal regions from Texas to Virginia.

Live oak leaves are small and roughly elliptical in shape, lacking the lobed or toothed edges found on leaves of many other oaks. Live oak leaves are one to three inches long, shiny green on top, with a firm texture. The leaf edge may have a few small points, especially on young branches, or it may be smooth all the way around.

Although leaves aren’t shed in autumn, they do eventually turn brown and fall off. This happens in spring, usually around mid-March. New leaves emerge at the same time. In a typical cycle, the tree never goes bare. Live oaks are considered “evergreen” in the nursery trade.

Flowers also appear in spring, with male flowers in catkins that shed yellow pollen. Acorns mature in fall, providing an important food source for deer and other wildlife. Both species produce nuts an inch long or less, with caps covering one-fourth to one-half of the nut. Acorns of Q. fusiformis have a slightly different shape, tapered at both ends.

Live oaks of both species can live a long time and grow extremely large. The Big Tree at Goose Island State Park, our state champion coastal live oak, has a main trunk more than 35 feet around and a crown spread of 89 feet. It’s believed to be more than 1,000 years old.

 

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