Quercus virginiana Mill.

Fully-hardy, small, wide-spreading, evergreen tree with oblong, usually entire leaves, glossy above whitish, hairy beneath.  [RHSD, Hortus, Hilliers’].

Horticultural & Botanical History

The fascinating history of this plant as an item of commerce warrants a somewhat longer segment than usual in the Hortus.  ‘The history of this live oak is a reversal of the history of almost every other important forest tree of the United States.  It seems to be the lone exception to the rule that the use of a certain wood never decreases until forced by scarcity.  There was a time when hardly any wood in this country was in greater demand than this, and now there is hardly one in less demand.  The decline has not been the result of scarcity, for there has never been a time when plenty was not in sight.  A few years ago, several fine live oaks were cut in making street changes in New Orleans, and a number of sound logs, over three feet in diameter, were rolled aside, and it was publicly announced that anyone who would take them away could have them.  No one took them.  It is doubtful if that could happen with timber of any other kind.

The situation was different 120 years ago.  At that time live oak was in such demand that the government, soon after the adoption of the constitution, became anxious lest enough could not be had to meet the requirements of the navy department.  The keels of the first war vessels built by this government were about to be laid, and the most necessary material for their construction was live oak.  The vessels were to be of wood, of course; and their strength and reliability depended upon the size and quality of the heavy braces used in the lower framework.  These braces were called knees and were crooked at right angles.  They were hewed in solid pieces, and the largest weighed nearly 1,000 pounds.  No other wood was as suitable as live oak, which is very strong, and it grows knees in the form desired.  The crooks produced by the junction of large roots with the base of the trunk were selected, and shipbuilders with saws, broadaxes, and adzes cut them in the desired sizes and shapes.

When the building of the first ships of the navy was undertaken, the alarm was sounded that live oak was scarce, and that speculators were buying it to sell to European governments.  Congress appropriated large sums of money and bought islands and other lands along the south Atlantic and Gulf coast, where the best live oak grew.  In Louisiana alone the government bought 37,000 live oak trees, as well as large numbers in Florida and Georgia.  In some instances the land on which the trees stood was bought.

Ship carpenters were sent from New England to hew knees for the first vessels of the navy.  The story of the troubles and triumphs of the contractors and knee cutters is an interesting one, but too long for even a summary here; suffice it that in due time the vessels were finished.  The history of those vessels is almost a history of the early United States navy.  Among their first duties when they put to sea was to fight French warships, when this country was about to get into trouble with Napoleon.  They then fought the pirates of North Africa, and there one of the ships was burned by its own men to prevent its falling into the hands of the enemy.  “Old Ironsides,” another of the live oak vessels, fought fourteen ships, one at a time, during the war of 1812, and whipped them all.  Another of the vessels was less fortunate.  It was lost in battle, in which its commander, Lawrence, was killed, whose last words have become historic: “Don’t give up the ship.”  Another came down to the Civil war and was sunk in Chesapeake Bay.

The invention of iron vessels ended the demand for live oak knees.  The government held its land where this timber grew for a long time, but finally disposed of most of it.  Part of that owned in Florida was recently incorporated in one of the National Forests of that state.

Live oak is a tree of striking appearance.  It prefers the open, and when of large size its spread of branches often is twice the height of the tree.  Its trunk is short, but massy, and of enormous strength; otherwise it could not sustain the great weight of its heavy branches.  Some of the largest limbs are nearly two feet in diameter where they leave the trunk, and are fifty feet long, and some are seventy-five feet in length.  Probably the only tree in this country with a wider spread of branches is the valley oak of California.  The live oak’s trunk is too short for more than one sawlog, and that of moderate length.  The largest specimens may be seventy feet high and six or seven feet in diameter, and yet not good for a sixteen-foot log.  The enormous roots are of no use now.  When land is cleared of this oak, the stumps are left to rot.

The range of live oak extends 4,000 miles or more northeast and southwest.  It begins on the coast of Virginia and ends in Central America.  It is found in Lower California and in Cuba.  In southern United States it sticks pretty closely to the coastal plains, though large trees grow 200 or 300 feet above tide level.  In Texas it is inclined to rise higher on the mountains, but live oak in Texas seldom measures up to that which grows further east.  In southern Texas, where the land is poor and dry, live oak degenerates into a shrub.  Trees only a foot high sometimes bear acorns.  In all its range in this country, it is known by but one English name, given it because it is evergreen.  The leaves remain on the tree about thirteen months, following the habit of a number of other oaks.  When new leaves appear, the old ones get out of the way.’  [Gibson – American Forest Trees p.254/1913].

Introduced to Europe in 1739.  [JD].

History at Camden Park

Listed in all published catalogues [T.815/1843].


Published Feb 03, 2010 - 05:33 PM | Last updated Feb 03, 2010 - 05:40 PM

The photograph shows a large, spreading tree with short trunk, with forester for scale.  American Forest Trees p.254, 1913.

Quercus virginiana Mill. | Gibson – American Forest Trees p.254/1913 | BHL

More details about Quercus virginiana Mill.
Family Fagaceae
Region of origin

Central and North America

  • Quercus virens Ait.
Common Name

Live oak, Southern live oak

Name in the Camden Park Record

Quercus virens - American live Oak

Confidence level high