In Chris Schwarz Blog, Raw Materials

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After pestering my flu-infested father for three days, he finally felt well enough for us to visit the Angel Oak on John’s Island , which some people consider to be the oldest living thing east of the Rocky Mountains.

It’s a gargantuan live oak (Quercus virginiana) that is estimated to be 1,400 to 1,500 years old. It was a sapling when Arthur was trying to beat back the Saxons in England.

Live oak is an interesting bird. It’s more of an evergreen tree in some ways. There’s a young live oak outside my dad’s front door in Charleston, S.C., and today it still has all its leaves. It doesn’t drop its leaves until the new ones are ready to come in.

The wood is also interesting. It is one of our heaviest native hardwoods (55 pounds per cubic foot when air dried). Like its other oak brethren, it is stiff and strong. The live oak was prized for shipbuilding, however now it’s difficult to find commercially. Heck, I’ve never seen it for sale in any rack.

The Angel Oak (which is named after the plantation it grew on), is like something out of Lord of the Rings. It twists and turns and branches everywhere over a huge area. Branches leave the trunk, dive underground and come up again. Weird. Though the tree isn’t tall (just 65 feet high), it is quite wide (the canopy covers about 17,000 square feet of ground).

When we arrived at the tree it was raining hard, and I expected that we’d be the only ones there. Wrong. Apparently it was Cletus Hour at the Angel Tree. Instead of the quiet reverence I was anticipating, there was a bit of a hoe-down going on beneath the branches. A group of about 10 people were gawking at the tree and screaming at each other: “I love this tree! I loves it!”

Then they got into an interesting debate about whether it would have been better to be under the tree (or not) during Hurricane Hugo. The line of argument was something like: “Uh-huh,” and “No way” and “I LOVES this TREE!”

Then they went to the gift shop. Yes, this tree has its own gift shop.

After the people cleared out, it was more like a cathedral than a roadhouse. The leaves of a live oak don’t look like your typical oak. They are waxy and lozenge-shaped, and there’s something odd about the tree having all its leaves on the last day of February.

During the last 1,400 years some branches have broken off in interesting ways, and my father kept pointing out some faces he could see in the ripples of the bark and broken branches. I saw nothing. I apparently need to take his temperature to see if his brain is cooking.

I knew it was time to go when the rain stopped and a tour bus pulled up. But before we left the tree’s canopy, I had one more task to do. I picked up a cluster of leaves and acorns that had fallen on the ground and stuffed them in my pocket.

The soil of Fort Mitchell, Ky., probably isn’t sandy or warm enough to support a live oak, but stranger things have happened , such as tree living for 1,400 years.

– Christopher Schwarz


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Showing 14 comments
  • Bob Demers

    To answer Mathias question:
    I hope you get your acorns to take root, and that the trees will cause some future inhabitants to scratch their heads and wonder what ambitious squirrel had brought it there from over the mountains.

    Easy, its the squirrel from Ice Age of course 🙂

    Bob

  • John Cashman

    In 1989 South Carolina donated some live oaks felled by Hurricane Hugo to the upkeep of the USS Constitution. That’s the only recent use of live oaks that I can recall. The US Navy also has a grove of white oaks at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane Indiana that supplies oak exclusively for the USS Constitution. If anyone comes to Boston they should check out the ship. The shipyard has a building where they steam and bend massive timbers for the ongoing maintenance of Old Ironsides. They are in the midst of replacing all of the douglas fir decking on the spar deck from a previous (inaccurate) restoration, and will be using southern yellow pine and white oak.

  • Derek Lyons

    If you ever get down to Jacksonville, Fl – there’s a similar tree/park there as well, the Treaty Oak.

    http://www.jaxfountain.com/Original/oak.htm

  • Norman Robertson

    I love to see pictures of that tree over my sixty years I have had fondness for it. I saw it when I was about 20 about 40 yrs. ago and it as some growth changes to it but still an outstanding tree. But I live on Galveston Bay and went thru Ike without to much damage like so many others. But after seeing all the destruction and helping a few friends out I was able to grab about 20 or so rounds of different diameters and lengths.Would of like to have gotten more but did not want to venture into some yards without permission it is still Texas and we like our guns. You are so right about it being heavy waiting for it to dry out as well as some red and white oak. also come up with some Elm the jury still out on it’s turning abilities. Have a good retreat and keep up the great articals. Thank you.

  • Hank Knight

    Chris,

    I’m glad you and your dad took the time to visit the Angel Oak. It is truly a wonderful tree. There is another wonderful tree near Charleston called the Middleton Oak. It’s on the river bank at Middleton Plantation; and it, too, is a fabulous old live oak. Unfortunately it was damaged badly during a recent storm. I havn’t seen it since the damage, but I’m told it’s still worth seeing. So is Middleton plantation.

    I’ve only seen the Charleston live oaks without leaves once. In September 1989, Hurricane Hugo blew all (I mean ALL) the leaves off the live oaks on White Horse Point (the Battery Park at the end of Meeting Street on the Harbor). It was really strange looking. None of the trees were damaged, however; and the leaves came back a few weeks later. Gives you some idea of how strong they are. Think of all the bad hurricanes they must have survived to get to be 1,400 years old!

    If you ever have time to stop by Columbia on your way to or from Charleston, let me know. I’d love for you to come by the house for lunch or just a visit.

    Hank

  • LizPf

    My spouse-creature grew up in Encino, California. His favorite tree was a live oak called the Encino Oak. This tree inspired a love of trees in him. [As well as some interesting discussion when I told him what real oaks look like.]

    Unfortunately, the city devoured the Encino Oak. The surrounding streets were widened, a patio was laid underneath, and the tree gradually succumbed. My 13 year old daughter got to see the tree before it was cut down, but doesn’t remember it.

    If we ever travel in the South, the Angel Oak will be very high on the must see list. Thanks Chris, for giving my husband some good memories.

  • Randy Kimery

    Look at the possibility of Oak Burl Pen Blanks! How many Pen Blanks do you think you could get from this sized tree? JUST KIDDING! I would never cut a beauty like this down.

  • Denis Rezendes

    wow that tree had a thick trunk… not that id cut it down but if it ever came down how nice would a single slab table out of that be…..

  • Casey Gooding

    How have I never heard of this tree?? I lived there for five years and never knew about it.

    I laughed out loud at the Cletus remark. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who refers to certain people by that name. My wife always yells at me though and says I’m going to be in big trouble when our three year old calls someone Cletus.

  • Brad Ferguson

    Chris,
    I live on James Island in Charleston, you drove right by when you trekked out to Johns Island, If you feel the need for a sawdust fix while you are visiting the Holy City feel free to stop by, the shop is open for you. I’ll even let you play with the GOOD planes.
    Brad

  • Mark Mazzo

    Hey Chris,

    I had an encounter with the Angel Oak last year (http://thecraftsmanspath.com/2008/04/25/angel-oak-some-trees-should-be-left-standing/). Man was that thing impressive! Kind of makes you wonder what kind of woodworking was going on 1400 years ago.

    –Mark

  • J.C. Collier

    You might want to get the seed to sprout before you transplant it. Just a thought. I live in Central FL where live oaks are still plentiful but as you noted not available on any woodlot.

    I did recently get to visit Goodwin Lumber in Micanopy, FL [10 mins south of Gainesville] and WHOA! They are a river recovery operation and are still finding "sinkers" in the Suwannee River. We’re talking old growth stuff felled in the century before last! Ever seen any curly heart pine? Schweeet! I’m going back next time WITH my wallet and WITHOUT the missus. HA!

    always,
    J.C.

  • Mattias in Durham, NC

    I think it is an insult to soil everywhere to call what we have here on the Piedmont "soil." It’s only ideal for one thing: Tobacco.

    1,400 years is a long time. It would be hard to preserve anything for that long even if you tried. I hope you get your acorns to take root, and that the trees will cause some future inhabitants to scratch their heads and wonder what ambitious squirrel had brought it there from over the mountains.

  • Glenwood Morris

    Chris, Raleigh, NC is known as the city of Oaks, and it is the live oaks that the name refers to. Our soil is more of a red clay than the sandy loam you would find in the coastal plains of NC and SC, so perhaps your live oak acorns will find root in Kentucky.

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