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Quercus virginiana, also known as the southern live oak, is an evergreen or nearly evergreen oak tree native to the southeastern United States. Though many other species are loosely called live oak, the southern live oak is particularly iconic of the Old South.
A large number of common names are used for this tree, including "Virginia live oak", "bay live oak", "scrub live oak", "plateau oak", "plateau live oak", "escarpment live oak", and (in Spanish) "encino". It is also often just called "live oak" within its native area, but the full name "southern live oak" (Flora of North America) helps to distinguish it from other live oaks, a general term for any evergreen species of oak.
This profusion of common names partly reflects an ongoing controversy about the classification of various live oaks, in particular its near relatives among the white oaks (Quercus subgenus Quercus, section Quercus). Some authors recognize as distinct species the forms others consider to be varieties of Quercus virginiana. Notably, the following two taxa, treated as species in the Flora of North America, are treated as varieties of southern live oak by the United States Forest Service: the Texas live oak, Quercus fusiformis (Q. virginiana var. fusiformis) and the sand live oak, Quercus geminata (Q. virginiana var. geminata).
Matters are further complicated by southern live oaks hybridizing with both the above two species, and also with dwarf live oak (Q. minima), swamp white oak (Q. bicolor), Durand oak (Q. durandi), overcup oak (Q. lyrata), bur oak (Q. macrocarpa), and post oak (Q. stellata).
Typical southern live oaks are endemic from southeast Virginia to Florida, including the Florida Keys, and west to southeast Texas. Texas live oaks grow primarily in Texas, on the Edwards Plateau and the Rio Grande Plain, but can be found as far west as Terrell County, Texas, in southwestern Oklahoma and northeastern Mexico. Sand live oaks grow from North Carolina to Florida in the east and Mississippi in the west.
Depending on the growing conditions, live oaks vary from the shrubby to large and spreading: typical open-grown trees reach 15 meters (50 feet) in height, but may span nearly 50 meters. Their lower limbs often sweep down towards the ground before curving up again. They can grow at severe angles, and Native Americans used to bend saplings over so that they would grow at extreme angles, to serve as trail markers. They drop their leaves, and grow new ones, within a few weeks in spring. The bark is furrowed longitudinally, and the acorns are small, but long and tapered. The branches frequently support other plant species such as rounded clumps of ball moss, thick drapings of Spanish moss, resurrection fern, and parasitic mistletoe.
Southern live oak can grow in moist to dry sites. They can withstand occasional floods and hurricanes, and are resistant to salt spray and moderate soil salinity. They tend to survive fire, because often a fire will not reach their crowns. Even if a tree is burned, its crowns and roots usually survive the fire and sprout vigorously. Furthermore, live oak forests discourage entry of fire from adjacent communities because they provide dense cover that discourages the growth of a flammable understory. Although they grow best in well-drained sandy soils and loams, they will also grow in clay. Live oaks are also surprisingly hardy. Those of southern provenance can easily be grown in USDA zone 7 and the Texas live oak (Quercus virginiana var. fusiformis), having the same evergreen foliage as the southern variety, can be grown with success in areas as cold as zone 6. Even with significant winter leaf burn, these trees can make a strong comeback during the growing season in more northerly areas, such New Jersey, southern Ohio, and southern Connecticut.
Among the animals for which live oak acorns are an important food source are the bobwhite quail, the threatened Florida scrub jay, the wood duck, yellow-bellied sapsucker, wild turkey, black bear, various species of squirrel, and the white-tailed deer. The tree crown is very dense, making it valuable for shade, and the species provides nest sites for many other species.
Live oak wood is hard, heavy, and difficult to work, but very strong. In the days of wooden ships, live oaks were the preferred source of the framework timbers of the ship, using the natural trunk and branch angles for their strength. The frame of USS Constitution was constructed from southern live oak wood harvested from St. Simons Island, Georgia, and the density of the wood grain allowed it to survive cannonade, thus earning it the nickname "Old Ironsides". Even today, the U.S. Navy owns extensive live oak tracts. Several live oaks are notable landmarks, including two named the "Treaty Oak;" one in Texas and another in Florida. Two 130 year old southern live oaks are at "Toomer's Corner" at Auburn University in Alabama, and these well-known trees are very much a part of the football tradition.
Native Americans extracted an oil from the acorns.
Care for the southern live oak is very easy, as it requires very little watering while it is young. After it is four to five feet tall, watering can be forgotten, and no more care is required. It is long-lived; trees in excess of 500 years were once common, and one, the Angel Oak on Johns Island, South Carolina is estimated at 1400 years of age; it is 20 m tall, 2.47 m diameter, and has a maximum spread (longest branch) of 27 m; the crown covers an area of 1,580 m2.
- ^ Q. virginiana was first described and published in the Gardeners Dictionary, Edition 8. London. Quercus no. 16. 1768. "Plant Name Details for Quercus virginiana". IPNI. http://www.ipni.org:80/ipni/idPlantNameSearch.do?id=324846-2. Retrieved July 19, 2010.
- ^ Bender, Steve, ed (January 2004). "Quercus virginiana". The Southern Living Garden Book (2nd ed.). Birmingham, Alabama: Oxmoor House. ISBN 0-376-03910-8.
- ^ "Quercus virginiana in Flora of North America @ efloras.org". www.efloras.org. http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=233501097. Retrieved 2008-11-01.
- ^ "Landowner Fact Sheets - live oak". www.cnr.vt.edu. http://www.cnr.vt.edu/dendro/LandownerFactsheets/detail.cfm?Genus=Quercus&Species=virginiana. Retrieved 2008-11-01.