THERE’S AN ODD MYSTIQUE that surrounds southern live oaks. They are iconic for their strength, endurance and longevity, and in many ways, they mirror the best qualities of the pioneering individuals and families who endured natural forces to survive and thrive in the South.
However, a large part of the oaks’ mystique is due to their great age. A single member of the species can live a half-dozen human generations or more. Their looming centenarian presence in a community can make them an integral part of the history and spirit of that place. The old oaks are local landmarks. By the sight of a familiar oak, you know where you are and how far you have to go to reach your destination. They are old friends, living shelters, ecosystems and shady spots where neighbors might enjoy a glass of sweet tea and pass the hottest hours of a blazing summer’s day.
WHERE TO FIND THE SIX CHAMPION LIVE OAKS:
1. Seven Sisters Oak – 200 Fountain St., Mandeville, LA
2. Randall Oak – 9789 False River Road, New Roads, LA
3. Edna Szymoniak Oak – 21549 Old Covington Highway, Hammond, LA
4. Lorenzo Dow
Oak – Grangeville Masonic Lodge grounds, 3651 Highway 63, Pine Grove, LA (at the intersection of Hwy. 63 and Hwy. 37)
5. La Belle Colline Oak – On private grazing land about 1/4 mile off of Hidden Hills Road, in Sunset, LA (30.383379 latitude by -92.015091 longitude)
6. The Seven Brothers Oak – Located about 1.5 miles southwest of Washington, LA, on Hwy. 182, at intersection with Par Road 5-25 (30.595331 latitude by -92.070500 longitude).
I’ve photographed and documented oaks in my home state of Louisiana since 1985. What began as a simple photographic exercise to create a series of images has grown into a personal journey and a life’s work. Over time, I’ve slowly been drawn deeper into this mystique and the legends and stories associated with the oaks.
In 2015, after 30 years of pointing a camera lens at oaks, and with a growing sense that the state was fast losing its oldest trees each year to urban development and storms, I focused my efforts on documenting the very oldest live oaks still to be found, trees with a girth of 30 feet or more. Thirty years and 30 feet in circumference had a lyrical quality to it. It felt like a good theme on which to build something larger, something that might raise public awareness of how few of these old trees still remain.
Why is an oak with a 30-foot circumference significant? According to several Louisiana arborists I consulted, oaks of this size are probably between 300 and 500 years of age (add another 100 years or more for oaks with a girth greater than 35 feet). That means these live oaks were probably growing before Europeans arrived on the continent (the earliest Spanish colony was established in 1565 in St. Augustine, Fla.; Jamestown, Va., began in 1607). And a few of the oldest of these oaks were possibly growing before the name “America” was first used in print in 1507, as a designation for this continent — in other words, Before America was America.
It’s impressive that these trees have managed to survive 300 years of settlement, urban development and even logging during the era of wooden shipbuilding. Having nearly exhausted the European continent of oak wood for their fleets, the British, French and Spanish rulers coveted the broad expanse of live oak forests in the Louisiana territory. As early as 1709, shipwrights recognized that the near impenetrable wood of the live oak was perfect for the timbers (long beams) and knees (angular joints in the hulls) of ships.
In 1934, Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens, the first president of the Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now University of Louisiana at Lafayette), published an article in the Louisiana Conservation Review titled, “I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing.” The piece drew its name from a poem by Walt Whitman, and like Whitman’s poem, Stephens praised the singular beauty of this distinctly Southern species of oak. From his background as a science teacher, Stephens observed, measured, photographed and collected data on the oaks, taking special interest in the oldest and largest of the species. He saw the live oak as an important cultural, historic, ecological and artistic resource for Louisiana, and even argued that the tree species should have been called “Quercus Louisiana” instead of Quercus virginiana for the sheer number of live oaks in the state.
In his article, Stephens proposed an organization that might preserve and protect the oldest living members of the live oak species, those trees “…whose age is not less than a hundred years…” The association he proposed became the Live Oak Society, a group whose members are all trees, except for one human chairperson who is both record keeper and advocate for the oaks.
Using the Live Oak Society’s early registry as a starting point, I searched land records, interviewed local arborists, garden clubs, senior citizens, master-gardener groups and even local sheriff’s departments. Slowly I assembled a list that includes almost 20 trees that fall into the 30-foot girth size.
The following is a sampling of six of those oaks.