The live oak tree has a long, and prominent story that continues today in Fernandina Beach, Florida. John Quincy Adams was President in 1825. This was the year Fernandina Beach became an official city in the US territory of Florida. Adam’s government established the first national tree farm, a live oak reservation. It is in Pensacola, Florida, and remains a national park to this day.
More than 25 years prior, the USS Constitution was launched, that was in 1797. Known as the world’s oldest ship, she is still afloat. During the War of 1812, the ship held firm showing her strength against British cannons. Why? Well, she was constructed from the strong wood of the live oak tree. This native American tree produces tightly grained, hard wood, with curved limbs that is suitable for ship building. It was during this war she earned the nickname, “Old Ironside”.
The live oak tree remains a symbol of great strength in the south. Through centuries of tropical storms and hurricanes, it is the live oak that remains. Living for over a thousand years, historians have traced the practice of thousands of human lives having been saved by clinging to or tying themselves to the tree’s sturdy limbs during hurricanes, yet her biggest predator is development by man. The live oak tree continues to provide shelter from high winds and rough seas. Dunes and barrier islands are the mainland’s first line of defense, but the broad trees are resistant to salt water and its deep roots provide another line of defense from storm surges and tropical winds.
Always assuming the role of protector to man, the live oak is considered the mainstay of the maritime forests. The tree offers crucial support to a diverse group of species living in the American South. North America’s earliest inhabitants relied extensively on acorns for food, with acorns from the live oak tree being one of the least bitter, they would grind the acorns into meal for food. Modern science research confirms what mankind has known for centuries, the oak tree possesses the following healing benefits: astringent, fever reducer tonic, antiseptic, anti-viral, anti-tumor, and anti-inflammatory actions.
Browse is the combination of leaves, twigs, and the young shoots of oaks. Deer, rabbits, and other animals like to feed on this. Many species of insects also feed on oak leaves, and predatory spiders take advantage of the diversity of insects attracted to oak leaves by residing in these trees and feed on these other insects. Some birds use a similar tactic, visiting clumps of Spanish moss on the branches of live oak tree to feed on the many insects that live in the clumps of moss.
Acorns are one of the most important food items in the diets of a wide variety of animals. More than 100 species of vertebrate animals are known to consume acorns in the US, including mammals such as white-tailed deer, squirrels, mice, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, foxes, and wild hogs. Birds that feed on acorns include wild turkey, quail, ducks, woodpeckers, crows, and jays.
For example, deer may spend more time in oak-dominated stands during autumn in the years when acorns are abundant, and more time in other habitat types during years when acorns are less abundant. Also, the size of black bears may decrease in years when acorns are abundant, and increase (along with complaints of nuisance activity) during years when acorns are scarce. Similarly, wild turkeys often have smaller home ranges when acorns are abundant.
During spring and early summer, many kinds of grasses, forbs (broad-leaved herbaceous plants), and woody twigs are high in nutritional quality and highly digestible. This is because new growth is most common during spring and summer. As these plant materials age, the nutritional benefits they provide decrease. By autumn these foods have such low nutritional value and palatability (tastiness) that they are usually ignored by wildlife. Also, many of the species of plants that produce fleshy fruits, like berries and grapes, do so during spring and summer, offering few benefits to hungry wildlife during autumn and winter.
Acorns become most abundant on the ground in autumn and winter, which is exactly the time of year when availability and nutritional quality of many other plant food resources are lowest. Another reason acorns are critically important to many animals is because autumn is a time of year when animals need to consume extra food in preparation for the harsh weather conditions of winter. Acorns supply energy at a time of year when animals most need it. Acorns are relatively high in carbohydrates and are therefore a highly concentrated source of energy. However, not all acorns are the same in terms of nutritional content or palatability. Acorns produced by different species of oak trees are in fact quite different. Wildlife prefers the acorn from the white oak group, which includes the live oak tree, than they do the red oaks.
Another resource oaks provide for animals is cover. Dense foliage conceals nests of birds and mammals from predators. For example, Florida scrub-jays often build nests in short shrubby oaks; warblers, and squirrels often build nests in large, mature oak trees.
After oak leaves have fallen from trees, they continue to provide shelter to the many small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians that live in the layer of dead leaves that accumulate beneath trees.
Cavities in the trunks of living or dead trees are used as den, nest, and roost sites by many mammals and birds.
Oaks Can be Toxic
Acorns, leaves, and buds of some oaks can be toxic to some domestic livestock. Cattle, goats, and sheep can all experience fatal poisoning by ingestion of too many acorns or too much oak browse. Livestock should not be permitted to graze in areas with dense oak cover.
It is also a winner with advocates of clean air and attention to climate change. Thought of as a long-term solution to climate change, the live oak tree appears to be one of the most efficient trees in the world at capturing carbon. They also provide a cooling shade which can reduce the temperature of a city by ten degrees F. The large tree’s shade canopies cool our streets, and our homes. They reduce our air conditioning needs, and well placed trees around our homes help us save energy used for heating. Storm water clings to their leaves and root systems reducing our investment in infrastructure. The trees break the force of wind and water, and stabilize the sand and soil to help prevent erosion.
Amelia Tree Conservancy: During a year, a mature tree will absorb more than 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The current president of the Live Oak Society is 1,200 years old. One of the vice presidents has a trunk more than ten feet in diameter. The society has one human member; the rest are the trees.
What is one of the newer trends on social media? Forest bathing under the native barrier-island’s maritime hammocks.
The Bartram Garden Club was our Bicentennial Booth with a Cause at the farmers market today. This is a federated garden club in Fernandina Beach, serving Amelia Island and Nassau County. Named after famed colonial naturalist William Bartram. Bartram landed on the north end of Amelia Island and traveled through Old Town to the plantation where Fernandina now stands. Escorted by Stephen Egan, the pair traveled around the entire island observing the plantation and Indian mounds. It was March 1774, when he first set foot on Amelia Island to record its flora and fauna. This was nearly 1/2 century before the incorporation of the City of Fernandina Beach. The Bartram Club will planted a weeping yaupon holly tree at the entrance to Fort Clinch on January 19th, commemorating Florida’s Arbor Day, as well as the 100th Anniversary of the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs. Then on the 20th, they brought 100 live oak seedlings to the farmers market, a hearty tree Bartram surely admired on his travels. These trees will be free to the public while they last.
The history of the live oak tree’s commitment to protect humanity is fascinating. Whether providing food, protection from the sea, from illness, or from the cannon fire of the British, her sturdy planks, ample acorns, bark, roots, and branches would all have been commodities found in a trading post or coastal community market in Fernandina Beach in the year 1825.