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Village Craftsmen

170 Howard Street 
PO Box 248
Ocracoke Island, NC  27960

Ocracoke Newsletter

December 29, 2008

Live Oaks of Ocracoke,  Part I

Ocracoke Island boasts a number of magnificent Southern Live Oaks (Quercus Virginiana), many of them hundreds of years old. The live oak is the dominant hardwood tree found on Ocracoke.

A Majestic Ocracoke Live Oak (Old Hammock Oak):

(Click on photo to view larger image.)

Southern Live Oaks grow from southeastern Virginia, south to the Florida Keys, and as far west as southern Texas. They can grow to a height of more than 75 feet, with a spread of up to 150 feet. Their lower branches often grow long, droop close to the ground and then curve back up in graceful arches. Live Oaks are so named because they remain green throughout the year, loosing their 2” – 5” oval leaves only in the spring, as new, dark green leaves sprout from their branches.

A Low-hanging Branch:

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Live oaks are valued on Ocracoke for their beauty and shade. Their crowns are dense and provide ideal conditions for the nests of many bird species. They are salt tolerant and usually sturdy enough to withstand the assault of powerful storm-driven winds. These hardy trees grow best in coastal areas in well drained sandy soil, so are frequently found on hills and hummocks both in Ocracoke village, and elsewhere on National Seashore property.

Ocracoke's Largest Live Oak, located on Howard Street (the William Howard Oak):

(Click on photo to view larger image.)

In the days of wooden sailing vessels live oaks were prized for their density, hardness, and shape. Ship timbers, especially “knees” (framing members formed at right angles and used to secure beams to each other) and other curved structural members, were often constructed from the wood of live oak trees.

A Ship's Knee:

Ship's Knee

During the eighteenth century the British Navy engaged in a practice called “live oaking.”  Hardwoods were aggressively harvested in the colonies for ships. In particular, shipbuilders sought live oaks. The felled logs were tied together in bundles and carried offshore where they were set adrift in the Gulf Stream. From there they would float across the Atlantic. A goodly number of the bundles actually arrived on the west coast of England where the British Navy gathered them and turned them into ship timbers. 

A Stand of Live Oaks:


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Ocracoke Islanders have passed down stories of early shipbuilders and their agents who walked from house to house examining the many live oaks that grew in the village. When they spotted a tree that was especially large, or that grew in such a way as to produce one or more natural knees they would approach the homeowner and offer an enticing sum to purchase the tree.

One of the Island's Largest Live Oaks (Old Hammock Oak):

(Click on photo to view larger image.)

In this way a number of Ocracoke’s majestic old-growth live oaks were harvested in the 1700s and the early- to mid-1800s.

Today, efforts are made to save and protect the remaining live oaks that grace our streets, lanes, and yards. The two largest live oaks on Ocracoke Island are located on historic Howard Street

The Live Oak Society, founded in 1934 by Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens, the first president of Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana in Lafayette), promotes the culture, distribution, preservation and appreciation of the live oak tree.

According to the by-laws of the society, only one human being is allowed membership. He or she is the chairman. Currently the chairman is Coleen Perilloux Landry. All of the other members are live oaks. The Live Oak Society began with 45 members chosen by Dr. Stephens and now boasts nearly six thousand members in 14 states. The Society is part of the Louisiana Garden Club Federation, Inc..

The first president of the Society was "The Locke Breaux Oak" in Taft, Louisiana. Unfortunately this stately tree died in 1968, the victim of air and ground water pollution.

Its successor and current president is the "Seven Sisters Oak" located in Lewisburg, Louisiana on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. This live oak has a girth of over 38 feet, and is presumed to be about 1200 years old. Seven Sisters Oak is also the National Champion on the National Register of Big Trees.

The Society’s first vice-president is "Middleton Oak" in Charleston, South Carolina, with a girth of 31 feet. The second vice-president is the "St. John Cathedral Oak" in Lafayette, Louisiana, measuring 27 feet. The "Lagarde Oak" in Luling, Louisiana, is third vice-president and measures 29 feet. "Martha Washington Live Oak" in Audubon Park in New Orleans, Louisiana, is fourth vice-president and measures 28 feet in girth.

The “William Howard Oak,” the largest live oak on Ocracoke Island, was registered by the Live Oak Society in November of 2008. This tree lives in the yard of the small cottage at 58 Howard Street. It’s girth (measured just below where the trunk divides) is 17’ 0” and it has a spread of at least 57.’

The William Howard Oak: 

William Howard Oak

(Click on photo to view larger image.)

The next largest live oak on the island is also located on Howard Street. Dubbed "Howard Street Sentinel," this tree measures 13' 9' in girth and lives in the yard of the Methodist parsonage. Although smaller in girth than the William Howard Oak, it has a spread of about 63' and is more prominent because it grows so close to the lane.

Howard Street Sentinel:

(Click on photo to view larger image.)

The Mary Ruth Oak is also along Howard Street, growing on a small hill near the Captain George Gregory Howard home. Named by Captain George's great-great granddaughter, Suzie Scott, who lives on the property, this tree is 11' 2' in girth, with a spread of about 57.'

Mary Ruth Live Oak:

Mary Ruth Oak

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The third largest live oak on Ocracoke Island grows at Old Hammock, just north of the federal campground on National Park Service land. It’s girth is 11' 10" with a spread of 48.'

Old Hammock Oak:

Old Hammock Oak

(Click on photo to view larger image.)

Several trees at Springer’s Point also qualify for membership in the Live Oak Society.

The largest tree on Springer's Point is the Pilot Town Oak. It is 10' around and has a spread of 60.' 

Pilot Town Oak:

Pilot Town Oak

(Click on photo to view larger image.)

Another impressive oak at Springer's Point is the Blackbeard Oak, near the sound shore. Although it is only 9' 2" in girth, with a spread of about 57,' this oak is very noticeable because of its location.

Blackbeard's Oak:

Blackbeard's Oak

(Click on photo to view larger image.) 

Other remarkable old Ocracoke Island live oaks are located at Springer's Point, elsewhere in the National Park, on the Wikstrom estate, along Howard Street, and on other private property in the village. Howard Street Sentinel was registered with the Live Oak Society in October, 2008. The Mary Ruth Oak, Old Hammock Oak, Pilot Town Oak, and Blackbeard's Oak, were registered, along with the William Howard Oak, in November of 2008.

Live Oaks at Springer's Point:
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View of Pamlico Sound & Live Oak:

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Live Oaks on a Path through Springer's Point:

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