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Secret Places: Close to Eternal

secretplacesThey stand strong before sea storms. Against caustic salty winds, deluge or drought, they bend but do not break. They are our live oaks — the moss-bearded elders in the kingdom of trees on Hilton Head Island. Broader than they are tall, live oaks form a phalanx of bushy greenery by the seashore, salt marshes, and golf fairways. In the deep woods, live oaks darken the forest floor with cooling shade, and are shelter for dozens of plants and animal species. Here on the coast, the native live oak is nature’s most valuable player.



From Dolphin Head to Buck Island, and Sea Pines to South Forest Beach, the live oak (Quercus virginiana) is the monarch of Hilton Head Island’s woodlands. It stands strong and sturdy on the seacoast, where the subtropical clime may invite people, but is a threat to the survival of trees. How does this grand tree withstand the elements? Go outdoors and pick up a live glossy, teardrop-shaped, sharp-tipped oak leaf. Rub it between your fingers. The curved leaf-top feels stiff and waxy. This thick outer surface is a shield of waterproof, sand, ice, salt, ice and wind-resistant, cells named cutin. Like a little leather jacket, this cutin layer protects each leaf surface against the stresses and abuses that come with living near saltwater. Also, live oak leaves are small. This reduces exposure and stress to foliage. Thanks to cutin, the tree is evergreen — hence, the common name “live” oak.


Lowcountry locals know that around the third week of March, most live oak leaves fall. This event occurs when fresh new leaves appear and nudge out most of last year’s brown foliage. The “dropping season” begins innocently enough, when chilly wet winds blow. Soon, a blizzard of live oak leaves cascade to the ground. And so begins the season of daily blowing, hosing off the car every morning, and plucking those feisty leathery leaves out of windowsills, gutters and doorways. I learned this fact of Island life in the early 1970s. I was working on the restoration of the Civil War earthwork Fort Mitchel next to the new Old Fort Pub. This restaurant is nestled under mature live oaks. Around the third week of March, contractors had just completed the classic tin roof on the building. They sealed the roof with a fresh coat of paint and left for the evening. That night, a spring squall charged across Hilton Head Island. When the crew returned the following morning, every square inch of the pub’s roof was thatched with a thick brown bed of live oak leaves glued into the paint. The crew worked extra weeks scraping, and repainted — after “oak leaf fall” season was over. Remember this story when scheduling your house or deck painting: Beware the Ides of March.


The live oak tree is a “keystone species”—the center of a natural web linking many other plants and animals, including humans. Several grand trees, such as Harbour Town’s Liberty Oak and Hilton Head Plantation’s Talbird Oak, are well over 300 years old. On Johns Island near Charleston, the renowned Angel Oak is estimated to be more than 500 years of age. Some say this sprawling oak has stood for a millennium. What is the secret to live oak longevity? These grand trees grow on high, sandy ground, and their dense wood is highly resistant to insects, woodpeckers, rot, and disease. The colonial American Navy sought out live oak for use in the hull and framework of the great warships, such as the Old Ironsides. The live oak’s “good bones” — widespread roots, massive trunk, sturdy limbs, and dense wood — enable this tree to stand strong against wind (even hurricane-force), floodwater, and soil erosion at the edge of the salt marsh. The Sea Pines Forest Preserve hosts more live oaks than anywhere on Hilton Head Island. With its ballet of interlacing branches, festoons of Spanish moss, tree-hugging ferns, and vines heavy with fruit, each live oak is a maritime menagerie for wildlife. Sit a spell under protection and shade of a live oak. A special feeling is there, a sense of the ancient, a long life lived well. No wonder this grand tree is called Wood Eternal. M