An Oak From A Different Acorn

One of the younger live oaks in a yard on Snead Island near Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Susan M. Songster Weaver

For those of us who grew up in Western New York, the mighty oak has been a common sight and something we take for granted. Our forests are filled with these magnificent trees. If you are out hiking in our Chautauqua Watershed, the white, red and black oaks are easily recognized because of their unique leaf structures and the presence of acorns. But if you were to take a stroll in the southern United States, you would soon become aware of another type of oak — the live oak — an oak from a different acorn.

The white oaks we recognize are native to North America but can be found growing in other regions of the world. They can grow to heights of 60 to 100 feet with trunks up to 4 feet in diameter. The lobes on the leaves are rounded, and their acorns have a warty cap that only covers the top fourth of the nut. In the fall, the leaves can be red or brown and can stay on the trees through the winter even though they are dead. The bark is gray with broken narrow cracks.

Red oaks are sturdy trees, growing to heights of 60 to 90 feet, with a girth of 2 to 3 feet. They are good trees for landscaping as they grow fast. The leaf lobes are pointed with bristles on the tip. The acorns are large and rounded with a thin, scaly top. These are show-offs in the fall with colors of red, reddish orange and deep reddish brown. The bark of this tree is a reddish brown with fissures.

Black oaks can grow up to 80 feet tall, with a smallish 2 to 2.5 foot width to the trunk. Their leaves have pointed lobes with bristles and are shiny green on the upper surface. The underside of the leaf is a pale green. Your bright red trees, in the fall, are black oaks. The top half of the acorn is covered by the cap. Deep furrows are found in the thick black bark of this tree.

Now, hop in your car and head to Florida. You will soon become aware of the live oaks of the south. They are a symbol of strength, have a unique appearance and are a mainstay of historical cities like Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. Their proper name is Quercus virginiana, but the locals call them live oak trees. The name “live oak” was given to them because they never seem to lose their leaves. They do, in fact, lose them in the spring when new growth leaves appear.

Live oaks are a classic symbol of the South with their broad spreading branches draped in Spanish moss. A single tree can shade an entire yard the size of half a football field. Some of these trees are centuries old and, by some estimations, can increase the value of your home by $30,000 when mature. They help protect dwellings during hurricanes by acting like a windbreak.

The wood is very dense and heavy, weighing over 55 pounds per cubic foot when dry. The battle ship USS Constitution was made from live oak wood. It got its nickname “Old Ironsides” during the War of 1812 because cannon balls bounced off the sides of it. The wood was that strong! In fact, the Navy used to grow its own forests of live oak trees.

These trees are not tall, usually growing to about 60 feet, but they have an extremely wide, spreading crown. Young trees may grow 2 to 4 feet and increase their trunk diameter by an inch every year. The acorns do not appear until a tree is 20 years old, and a mature tree can draw up to 50 gallons of water a day through its tap root. They are a haven for wildlife and support “air plants” (epiphytes) like Spanish moss, night-blooming cereus and staghorn ferns.

On the flip side, live oaks can be messy trees when mature. The small leaves are hard to rake, and the Spanish moss blows out of them like giant fur balls. The tiny yellow flowers cover everything in a fine dust in the spring, and when the acorns that have been buried by squirrels sprout, the seedlings are difficult to remove. But they are so beautiful …

I hope your winter is going well in WNY. I am still wintering here in Florida, but the tug of home is starting to pull on me. Hope to see you soon on the trails and on the water!

Susan M. Songster Weaver is retired teacher, nature lover and longtime CWC volunteer and supporter. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit or