King of the Woods

live oak

Two live oaks on Palmetto Bay creek. Photo credit: Marianne Ballantine

THE FIRST VISION you have when arriving on Hilton Head Island is GREEN. The wall of dark, dense foliage, borne on long, twisting branches, shadows the tidal waterways, guards the edge of beach dunes, and frames fairways on the island. In our well-preserved maritime forest, the live oak is the Monarch.

A Tree Built to Last

John’s Island, S.C, displays a live oak tree aged over 1,400 years (that’s back in Medieval times, when the Byzantine Empire ruled). The Angel Oak is thought to be the oldest tree east of the Mississippi River. On Hilton Head Island, several live oaks (usually on the “north end” of the island) have been aged over 350 years (when Captain William Hilton first saw this island).

What is this tree’s secret of longevity? First, this tree puts down wide-spreading roots for stability in sandy soil. Then, to withstand sea winds, the trunk is stout and the wood is heavy and strong. Branches spread wide, not upward, thus, avoiding breakage in storms. Lower limbs stretch farthest to reach sunlight that those odd-looking leaves require for photosynthesis and making acorns.

Live oak leaves are evergreen—well, almost. They are small, teardrop-shaped, and waxy-coated to withstand wind, sea salt, sunscald, and even frost. The jungle gym of winding, bending, stretched-out limbs produces as many leaves as possible to enable leaves to absorb sunlight for as long as possible. This foliage is not truly evergreen: most leaves fall in March, when new buds form. The cascade of live oak foliage showers roofs, driveways, lawns and deck furniture with leathery brown debris that resists the broom and blower.

A Nature Preserve, All in One Tree

For island animals, this tree offers the three keys to habitat: food, shelter, and water:

  • Autumn’s protein-rich acorns are manna for island squirrels, deer, raccoons, the occasional gray fox, and some birds.
  • Dozens of animal species rest or nest in live oaks.
  • The craggy horizontal branches are support a terrarium of lichens, mosses, resurrection fern, and Spanish moss. Many animals will use this fluff to insulate their nests.
  • Certain plants thrive in the acid soil under live oaks: muscadine grape, Virginia creeper, and trumpet creeper provide nourishing berries for wildlife.

Take time to lounge or stroll under our venerable live oaks. My favorite Hilton Head Island live oak kingdoms are the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn and the Sea Pines Forest Preserve. In Bluffton, visit Calhoun Street. The nearer to the May River, the more regal the oaks will be.

Long Live the King!