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Old Live Oak on Bay St., Beaufort
Old Live Oak on Bay St., Beaufort, SC
(Photograph by Dennis Adams)

Oak Trees and Shrubs of the Lowcountry
by Dennis Adams
Information Services Coordinator


Types of Local Oak Trees and Shrubs

A number of types of oak trees and shrubs are native to Beaufort and the surrounding Lowcountry. The following list comes from Manual of Vascular Flora of the Carolinas (Radford, Ahles & Bell) and Guide to Southern Trees by Ellwood S. Harrar. Height figures are given as available.

  • Bluff Oak or Bastard White Oak (Quercus austrina): Restricted to the Lowcountry and to some central areas in South Carolina, but found in some other Deep-South states; Grows in rich, moist soil near streams; Large tree.
  • Laurel Oak or Darlington Oak (Quercus laurifolia): From the coast through the Midlands, rare in Piedmont; Low ground and sandy soils near streams and swamps; Medium size to large tree (50-60 feet high, but sometimes 100 feet; trunk diameter 3-4 feet).
  • Live Oak (Quercus virginiana): Coast through Midlands; Sandy woods; Generally a medium size tree (40-50 feet high; trunk diameter 3-4 feet).
  • Myrtle Oak (Quercus myrtifolia): Restricted to Beaufort County in S.C., but also found in Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi ; Sandy pine woods and ridges (seldom found far from salt water); Large shrub or small tree (35 feet maximum height; trunk diameter 4-8 inches).
  • Post Oak (Quercus stellata): Found in most parts of the state; Dry, poor or rich soil; Small or medium-sized tree (about 50 feet high; trunk diameter 18-22 inches).
  • Running Oak (Quercus pumila): Coast through Midlands; Sandy pinelands; Shrub.
  • Scrubby Post Oak (Quercus margaretta): From the coast through Midlands; Sandy soil; Small tree or shrub.
  • Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxi): Coast through Midlands and scattered in Piedmont; Low ground; Large tree (135 feet or higher; trunk diameter up to 8-9 feet).
  • Swamp Spanish Oak, Swamp Red Oak or Cherrybark Oak (Quercus falcata, variety Quercus pagodaefolia): Coast through parts of central S. C., but occasionally in the Piedmont; Bottom lands; Large tree (100-130 feet high; trunk diameter 3-5 feet).
  • Turkey Oak (Quercus laevis): Coast through Midlands; Poor, sandy soil; Small tree (20-30 feet high, and rarely 50-60 feet; trunk diameter 2 feet or smaller).
  • Upland Willow Oak or Blue-Jack Oak (Quercus incana): Most of coast to upper Midlands/lower Piedmont; Dry, sandy soil; Small tree.
  • Water Oak (Quercus nigra): Distributed throughout the state; Along streams and low ground; Tall, slender tree (50-80 feet high; trunk diameter 2-3 feet).
  • White Oak (Quercus alba): Throughout the state; Almost all types of soil; Large tree (80-150 feet high; trunk diameter 3-5 feet).
  • Willow Oak (Quercus phellos): Found in most of the state; Low grounds; Medium size to large tree (80-130 feet high; trunk diameter 3-6 feet).

Live Oaks

One of the old live oaks along Bay St., Beaufort
 
  • Live Oak (Quercus virginiana): Coast through Midlands; Sandy woods; Generally a medium size tree (40-50 feet high; trunk diameter 3-4 feet).

The Encyclopedia Britannica online web site reported that the live oak "grows rapidly on good soil but is not as long-lived as was once thought: the oldest known specimens range in age from 200 to 300 years. Live oak derives its name from the fact that it is evergreen and durable: lumbered or injured trees send up many sprouts, which also produce sprouts if cut themselves." A live oak 50 feet high may have a limb spread exceeding 130 feet!

AT LEFT:
One of the old live oaks along Bay St., Beaufort
(Photograph by Dennis Adams)

History and Social Life
of Beaufort County's Oaks

So grand a tree is more than the sum of its trunks and branches. Druids honored oaks as hosts of the hallowed mistletoe, and the trees have played a big role in our own society.

"The Secession Oak" in Bluffton
"The Secession Oak" in Bluffton
Photograph by Dennis Adams
(August 29, 2002)

  Bluffton’s "Secession Oak" may already have been two centuries old on July 31, 1844, when as many as 500 people met beneath its canopy. According to Janice Hunter Cantrell (in the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society’s No. II: A Longer Short History of Bluffton, South Carolina and Its Environs, they had come to hear their congressman, Robert Barnwell Rhett, "who had been so vociferously agitating since the 1820s for … Secession". And so began "The Bluffton Movement", which "led to South Carolina’s withdrawal from the Union on December 20, 1860 – the first state to secede." Robert S. Jones, Jr., director of Bluffton’s Heyward House Historic Center, drove us to the Secession Oak (on the left-hand side of Verdier Cove Road at Highway 46, just outside the town limits on the Pritchardville side).

Quite another gathering took place in Camp Saxton (an installation of black Federal soldiers) on New Year’s Day in 1863. In the January 1993 issue of The Beaufort Countian, William H. Whitten described the celebration at the reading of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to about 5,000 freed slaves (officially "contraband" before the decree). One participant recalled that "we followed the crowd up to the grove of live-oaks with their moss trimmings, which did not look so dreary under a winter’s sun, but very summer-like and beautiful." Sea Island churches still observe "Watch Night" each December 31 to mark the event (see Cathy Carter Harley’s December 26, 1999 Beaufort Gazette article). These "Emancipation Oaks" still stand on the Naval Hospital grounds; look back toward Ribaut Road from the tabby ruins of the 1732 British Fort Frederick to see them.

Hilton Head Island hosts a more recent – but deep-rooted – oak tradition of its own. Islanders and visitors have come to hear Gregg Russell sing under Harbor Town’s "Liberty Oak" for more than 20 years. Russell performs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and on special occasions.

Charleston’s "Angel Oak" (65 feet tall, 25 feet in circumference, with one limb 89 feet long) casts shade over an area of 17,000 feet and may well be the king of the Lowcountry forest. But any old oak whose branches have grown to touch the ground can claim the title of "angel oak".

The presence – or absence – of oak trees can even make or break a landmark. In 1974, William Hilton Parkway (Highway 278) was declared an official Scenic Route because of the oaks that lined that roadway to Hilton Head Island. The recent wide-scale clearing of trees for highway expansion has brought reconsideration of that "scenic" status, however.

Several Beaufort County landmarks bear the "oak" name. Gerhard Spieler (Beaufort Gazette issue of October 6, 1981) reported that "throughout the literature of the Civil War years in Beaufort, there is mention of ‘The Oaks’ Plantation on St. Helena Island. E. L. Pierce, one of the organizers of the change from a slave to a free labor economy, made it his headquarters. … It was there that, together with her friend, Miss Ellen Murray, (Laura Towne) began a school which later became Penn School."

Lowcountry Council of Government’s Historic Resources of the Lowcountry mentions "Seven Oaks"(the Baynard House, on Calhoun Street in Bluffton), "typical of Lowcountry style houses built before and after the Civil War. … The house is surrounded by live oaks (and) cedars …". The Paul Hamilton House (100 Laurens Street, Beaufort) dates from around 1856 and is known as "The Oaks": this part Beaufort-style, part Victorian mansion served as Hospital No. 1 during the Civil War.

Large trees line both sides of the unpaved "Avenue of Oaks", which begins at the gates of Coffin Point Plantation on Saint Helena Island. Drive to the end of Coffin Point Road (off Highway 21) for this half-mile vault of oak limbs with their thick Spanish moss.

Moviegoers marveled at the huge Beaufort oak that co-starred with Kevin Costner in the 1994 film, The War . That photogenic tree is located at the entrance to Carolina Shores at the end of Carolina Avenue, off Bruce K. Smalls Drive (intersecting with U. S. Highway 21 in the Gray's Hill area, past the Marine Corps Air Station). The oak appeared also in Forrest Gump, filmed the same year.

Movies aren’t the only art form inspired by our oaks. Photographers capture the trees along the high bluffs of Beaufort’s Bay Street every day. The Library sells reproductions of Neils Chistensen’s copy of John Barnwell Campbell’s lost 1798 view of Bay Street across the river, where two oaks command the foreground. And "Old Oaks in Winter", a haiku poem by University of South Carolina School of Library and Information Science professor Linda Lucas Walling, leaves an affectionate impression of Beaufort’s largest living creatures:

"Arthritic roots with
swollen joints,
warm in mossy
velvet socks."

Lowcountry Oaks Restore Historic Ships:
The
USS Constitution ("Old Ironsides") and the Slave Ship, Amistad

Oaks from the South Carolina Lowcountry had been part of the of the original Constitution (built in 1794 and nicknamed "Old Ironsides" after she withstood British bombardment in the War of 1812). Almost two hundred years later, the restored "Ironsides" gained new timber from Beaufort County oak trees. Live oaks felled for local construction projects escaped burning, thanks to the S. C. Department of Transportation, the University of South Carolina’s Institute of Archeology and Anthropology, the U. S. Navy, and the Marine Corps.

Robert McFee, the D.O.T.’s Resident Construction Engineer for Beaufort County, had tried to find a public agency that could make good use of six live oaks removed in the building of the James Island connector in 1992. Soon after U. S. C.’ s Institute informed McFee of the project to restore the USS Constitution, his department began supplying wood to rebuild the ship. Choice pieces of oak eventually came from the Parris Island entrance (cut during work on the Russell Bell Bridge), the Hilton Head cross-island highway, and other parts of Beaufort County through 1995. Road projects in Jasper, Colleton, Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester Counties provided even more of the hardwood.

According to nautical archeologist Jim Spirek, the Constitution was built before shipbuilders learned how to bend or steam wood into shape. So the long, arching branches made the best "knees" (or braces connecting the hull of the ship to its deck floors). Although live oak wood has no commercial value for modern shipbuilders, it is still prized by those who restore historic vessels.

"The U. S. Navy was very excited to get ahold of this wood," said McFee, "because, understandably, this kind of wood is pretty hard to come by."

The Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station paid to have the wood trucked to the Navy’s restoration project in Massachusetts. "Old Ironsides" set sail on Monday, July 21 , 1997 – for the first time in 116 years.

The online Encyclopaedia Britannica (www.britannica.com) confirms the USS Constitution as the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat. Although the HMS Victory (1765) is older, it now rests in a Portsmouth, England drydock.

On a July 24, 2000 visit to the library, Robert McFee said that six oaks cleared for the U. S. Highway 21 project on Lady’s Island (SC 802 at Sams Point Road) had lately gone to the restoration of the slave ship Amistad in Mystic Seaport (Connecticut). Slaves rebelled when that slaver sailed near the Cuban coast on July 2, 1839. An unexpected Supreme Court decision freed the Amistad rebels in 1841.

  • Sources:

  • Conversation with Michael McFee. July 24, 2000.

  • "S. C. Oak Helped Restore ‘Ironsides’", Beaufort Gazette staff report of July 22, 1997.

General Information About Oaks

Oaks are members of the larger beech family of trees (Fagaceae), with its three genera: Fagus (beech trees proper), Castanea (chestnuts and chinkapins) and Quercus (oaks). There are almost 300 species of Quercus, both deciduous (leaf-shedding) and evergreen trees and shrubs.

With 35 species here in the South, oak trees are a source of timber, tannin and yellow dye pigments. "In the days of sailing ships," wrote Ellwood S. Harrar, "the United States Navy procured large holdings of live oak forests for the exclusive use of the government’s shipyards. The large, massive, and arching limbs were highly sought after for ship ribs and knees." Not only squirrels, but pheasants, grouse, wild turkeys, domestic hogs and humans have all eaten oak acorns (the oil from live oak acorns has even been used in cooking). Cork is the harvested bark of two Mediterranean oak species.

 
Oak tree growing around a  tomstone in Zion Cemetery, Hilton Head Island
Oak tree growing around a
tombstone in Zion Cemetery,
Hilton Head Island

Photograph by Dennis Adams
(October 18, 2006)
     

A venerable live oak on Pigeon Point, Beaufort
A venerable live oak on
Pigeon Point, in Beaufort

Photograph by Dennis Adams
(August 7, 2002)

 

Special Thanks ...

... to our Assistant Library Director Hillary Barnwell and South Carolina Resources Librarian Grace Cordial for their "brainstorming" on this topic!

   
 
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