Southern Live Oaks grow from southeastern Virginia south to the Florida Keys, and as far as southern Texas. They can grow to a height of 75 feet or more, 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, losing their 2” – 5” oval leaves only in the spring, as new, dark green leaves sprout from their branches.

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.

In the days of wooden sailing vessels live oaks and other hardwoods 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.

During the eighteenth century the British Navy engaged in a practice called “live oaking.”  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.

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. 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 three 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. As of this writing, 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.

To become a member of the Live Oak Society a live oak must have a girth (waistline) of eight feet or greater. Girths over 16 feet are classified as centenarian.

Seven Ocracoke Island Live Oaks are registered with the Live Oak Society. To the best of our knowledge, these are the seven largest live oaks on the island, although there may be more:

 

No. Name Address Girth (feet) Current Owner/Sponsor
5908 HOWARD STREET SENTINEL Methodist Parsonage

105 Howard Street

Ocracoke, NC 27960

13.09 Ocracoke United Methodist Church

Sponsor: Philip Howard

5916 WILLIAM HOWARD OAK 58 Howard Street

Ocracoke, NC 27960

17.00 Melissa and Augie DiMarsico

Sponsor: Philip Howard

5917 OLD HAMMOCK OAK Old Hammock

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Ocracoke, NC 27960

11.10 National Park Service

Sponsor: Philip Howard

5918 MARY RUTH 120 Howard Street

Ocracoke, NC 27960

11.02 Suzie Scott

Sponsor: Philip Howard

5919 PILOT TOWN OAK Springer’s Point Land Trust

Ocracoke, NC 27960

10.00 NC Coastal Land Trust

Sponsor: Philip Howard

5920 BLACKBEARD’S OAK Springer’s Point Land Trust

Ocracoke, NC 27960

09.02 NC Coastal Land Trust

Sponsor: Philip Howard

Pend
ing
SPRINGER’S OAK Springer’s Point Land Trust

Ocracoke, NC 27960

08.10 NC Coastal Land Trust

Sponsor: Philip Howard

Below, you can see photos of these trees, read a description of each one, and get directions.

Please keep the following in mind:

  • Three of these trees are on private property; three are located in Springer’s Point, a protected land trust; and one is located on US National Park land.
  • Please respect the privacy of land owners and remain on public thoroughfares.
  • On public land please abide by all rules, remain on designated paths, and refrain from any activities that would damage the trees or surrounding vegetation or wildlife. Thank you for your consideration.

The William Howard Oak:

William Howard Oak
William Howard Oak

As far as we know, this is the largest live oak on Ocracoke Island. It measures 17′ 0″ in girth, with a spread of about 57′. This tree is measured about three feet from the ground, immediately below where the trunk splits into five main branches. It resides on Howard Street and is named for the island’s 1759 colonial owner.

William Howard Oak Certificate
William Howard Oak Certificate

Directions: From NC Highway 12 walk down Howard Street, a one-land unpaved road, about 300′. On the right, about 50′ from the lane, in the yard of the small cottage, “58 on Howard,” you will see the William Howard Oak.

Howard Street Sentinel:

Howard Street Sentinel
Howard Street Sentinel

Although this tree, the second largest live oak on the island, is technically smaller than the William Howard Oak (it’s girth, measured at 4′ above the ground is 13′ 09″), it does not branch so close to the ground, making its massive trunk more noticeable. At about 63′, it’s spread is larger than the William Howard Oak. For these reasons, and the fact that it is so close to the lane, many people consider it a more impressive tree. It also resides on Howard Street.

Howard Street Sentinel Certificate
Howard Street Sentinel Certificate

Directions: From the William Howard Oak walk about 200′ down the lane.  Howard Street Sentinel grows on the left, just on the other side of the wooden fence. It is nearly impossible to miss.

The Mary Ruth Oak:

Mary Ruth Oak
Mary Ruth Oak

This impressive live oak also lives on Howard Street. Named after the great-granddaughter of Captain George Gregory Howard (you can see his large two-story house with red trim and widow’s walk nearby), this tree measures 11′ 02″ in girth, with a spread of about 57′. It is the fourth largest live oak on Ocracoke.

Mary Ruth Oak Certificate
Mary Ruth Oak Certificate

Directions: Continue down Howard Street about 100′. On your right, on a small hill you will see this stately tree about 50′ on the other side of the fence.

Old Hammock Oak:

Old Hammock Oak
Old Hammock Oak

Old Hammock Oak is the third largest live oak on Ocracoke. It lives on National Park Service land, measures 11′ 10″ in girth, and has a spread of about 48′.

Old Hammock Oak Certificate
Old Hammock Oak Certificate

Directions: From the village drive north on NC Highway 12. From the first bridge (Island Creek Bridge, just west of the campground) continue about 7/10 of a mile. Park off the road and walk into the wooded area on the sound side, and through the power company’s right-of-way. The tree is close to the sound. There is no footpath to this tree, and it is difficult to find. Please do not destroy vegetation looking for it.

Springer’s Oak:

Springer's Oak
Springer’s Oak

Springer’s Oak is named for E.D. and Clara Springer, one-time owners of Springer’s Point. Today the Point is owned by the Coastal Land Trust. This oak has a girth of 8′ 02″. It has a spread of about 52′.

[Springer’s Oak Certificate Pending]

Directions: Walk or bike down Lighthouse Road to the entrance of Springer’s Point Nature Preserve. Please do not park along the road or on private property.  Walk down the footpath (follow the blue arrow) until you come to a live oak where the path has been widened (about 100 yards from the small wooden foot bridge. This is Springer’s Oak.

Pilot Town Oak:

Pilot Town Oak
Pilot Town Oak

This large live oak is located off the path in the Springer’s Point Nature Preserve. It measures 10′ around and has a large spread of about 60′. It is named for the island’s first settlement, at one time located nearby, a handful of seafaring men and their families who lived on Ocracoke in the early 1700s. These sailors helped guide merchant vessels through the narrow and twisting channels of Pamlico Sound.

Pilot Town Oak Certificate
Pilot Town Oak Certificate

Directions:  Pilot Town Oak stands about 55′ to the southwest of Springer’s Oak, in the woods. It can be very difficult to see. Please stay on the designated footpath.

Blackbeard’s Oak:

Blackbeard's Oak
Blackbeard’s Oak

Although Blackbeard’s Oak has a girth of “only” 9′ 02″ making it the sixth largest oak on the island, it is quite impressive because of the very large branch that arches over the path at Springer’s Point. It has a spread of about 57′ and is named for Ocracoke’s most infamous part-time resident.

Blackbeard's Oak Certificate
Blackbeard’s Oak Certificate

Directions: From Springer’s Oak, walk to the fork in the path. Turn right and walk between the small graveyard and the old brick cistern. Continue until you are almost to the sound shore. You will pass directly beneath the large arching branch of this very noticeable tree.

 

 

BASIC CARE OF A LIVE OAK

(from the Live Oak Society, https://www.lgcfinc.org/live-oak-society.html)

1. Do not cover the roots of a live oak within a 15 feet radius nor cover the roots with fill to no more than one quarter of the way around the tree. The roots will smother and the tree will die a slow death. Avoid parking vehicles under an oak as it compacts the soil and smothers the roots.

2. Add mulch around your tree to allow air and nourishment to help the tree with its life process. However, do not pile mulch against the trunk of the tree. A gentle slope of mulch outward from the base of the tree is proper. Do not create a volcano effect with mulch, as it can do more harm than good.

3. If a live oak has been damaged by construction work or drought it is helpful to give the tree a dose of root stimulator (note, this is different from regular fertilizer). It is not necessary to fertilize a live oak except when first planted in order to give it a good start. Fertilizer will do more harm than good to a stressed tree. Mulch it instead and water it occasionally, but heavily during droughts, soaking the entire root zone under the tree’s crown canopy.

4. If your tree’s canopy is very thick, you may wish to have an ISA-certified professional arborist open up the canopy to allow light and air to flow. If moss gets too thick, it may also need thinning to allow air to circulate more freely. Resurrection fern will not harm your oak; it will only enhance its beauty.

5. Never have your tree topped (“dehorned”) or lion-tailed (thinned excessively, leaving only the outer branches). A good arborist will prune it so carefully that when he is gone it will be difficult to tell that he was even there.

6. Do not drive nails into a live oak. If hanging a swing or tire swing, insert the chain or rope into a rubber tube or cushioned protection layer to prevent wear on the branches and inspect the device annually to make sure it is not rubbing or strangling the limbs as the tree grows larger.

7. Do not whitewash the tree. It is one of the rules of the Live Oak Society.

8. If the tree is in a low area where the drainage pattern has changed and water sits for weeks at a time, provide for better drainage as the oak’s roots can smother in water.

9. Be very careful with herbicides. A tree is just a big, broad-leaf weed to a lawn weedkiller.

10. Watch your tree for any signs of declining growth rate or crown die-back as these are symptoms of root problems which often can be treated successfully by a certified arborist if attended to early.

 

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