Live oak (Quercus virginiana) is the tree most associated with the South Carolina lowcountry. A member of the white oak group, it is also one of the longest lived and largest trees in the lowcountry. Live oaks range in height on Hilton Head Island from about 40-60 feet, and can have canopy spreads of over 100 feet. The largest known single trunk live oak on the island measures about 101 inches across! Live oak is very tolerant of many growing conditions, as long as the soil is fairly well drained. They are the most salt tolerant of our trees, and were the dominant trees in the maritime forests that once formed a fringe to the edge of the barrier islands along the southeast coast.
Those that grow along the dunes near the ocean may be a dwarf form of live oak. Having evolved in an area prone to strong winds, live oaks tend to be low and spreading near the water to better withstand storms. When they grow on the back dunes along the oceanfront, salt spray from the ocean burns the new leaf growth nearest the water; salt spray lessens as distance from the ocean increases. This often results in the shape of the canopy being slanted away from the ocean when viewed from the side.
The leaves of live oaks are almost evergreen. The leaves remain on the tree until late February-early March, and then are all shed in about a one to two week period as the new leaves begin to open.
The value of live oaks to wildlife is enormous. The acorns they produce provide food at a time of year that food is relatively rare. Some of our native wildlife that eat the acorns are wood ducks, bobwhite quail, wild turkey, grackle, blue jay, nuthatch, brown thrasher, red bellied woodpecker, red headed woodpecker, eastern gray squirrel, raccoon and white tailed deer. Deer will also eat the leaves and twigs, and many birds use the leaves and twigs in nest building. Live oaks that develop cavities also provide habitat to many of our native birds that are cavity nesters, such as woodpeckers, wrens, and owls, as well as shelter for raccoons, bats, opossums, flying squirrels, gray squirrels, many lizards and snakes such as rat snakes. They also provide habitat for two of our epiphytic plants (plants that grow on other plants), Spanish moss and resurrection fern. Even after they die, live oaks continue to provide cavity habitat, as well as providing woodpeckers with wood boring insects.
Arbor Day Foundation: www.arborday.org/trees/treeguide/