300 years ago, a tree — and a city — both took root
In spring 1718 — or thereabouts; estimating such things is a notoriously inexact science — an acorn dropped in an ancient forest in present-day City Park. Nearby and at about the same time, Jean-Baptiste, Sieur de Bienville, was sticking a figurative flag in the swampy soil, declaring the establishment of a settlement to be named New Orleans. Over the next 300 years, the city would grow to become one of the most unique and fascinating cities in America. That acorn would grow along with it, witnessing 300 years of colorful, sometimes heartbreaking history — dancing and duels, fellowship and floods, revelry and riots, weddings and wars. In the process it, and the countless other live oaks that have stood as gnarled but majestic pillars amid the South Louisiana landscape, would become moss-draped symbols of the region. From postcards to movie screens, the live oak has become as intertwined with the image of New Orleans as wrought iron or coffee with chicory — and twice as strong as either.
Like the city around it, that unofficial tricentennial oak that sprouted some 300 years ago continues to thrive in City Park, which today boasts the world’s largest collection of mature live oaks. To visit it, cross one of the two stone footbridges over the lagoon behind the Casino building in City Park (the building housing Morning Call). On the other side of the bridge, you’ll see a paved footpath. Just on the other side of the footpath, and roughly between the bridges, you’ll find our tree.
- The Southern live oak’s scientific name is Quercus virginiana. Its native range is from Virginia to Florida and along the Gulf Coast into Mexico.
- While technically not an evergreen, it comes close, with old leaves dropping around the same time new growth comes in — thus the “live” in its name.
- The Live Oak Society is a Louisiana-based organization founded to “promote the culture, distribution, preservation and appreciation of the live oak tree.” Per society bylaws, only one human member is allowed, tasked with recording and registering its member trees. Currently, 8,529 live oaks in 14 states are on the registry.
- To qualify for membership in the Live Oak Society, a tree must have a girth of at least 8 feet, with those measuring 16 feet or more recognized as centenarian.
- The “president” of the Live Oak Society is the Seven Sisters Oak in Mandeville, which — measuring just short of 39 feet in girth and reaching a height of 68 feet — is the largest certified Southern live oak on record. It has been estimated to be more than 1,200 years old.
- Dating oaks is largely guesswork. “My age is a teasing thought,” read a story published in The Daily Picayune in 1937, ostensibly quoting a live oak. “It does not seem to be practical to bore into the heart of my mystery — and determine the number of annual rings that have been created in my growth. I could not survive a laparotomy.”
- While the picturesque, moss-draped live oak is closely associated with New Orleans, it isn’t the state’s official tree. That distinction goes to the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).
- In the 1860 edition of his “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman wrote a poem titled “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing.”
For the past 12 months, we’ve had the honor of traveling with you on a journey through New Orleans’ three centuries of rich history, using as our time machine a series of 300 stories about the events — selected with your help — that connect and inspire us as a community. Today brings the 300th event in the series, and we found it only fitting to end by focusing on the mighty oak. Not only is Quercus virginiana — the Southern live oak — an iconic part of our landscape, but it is also an apt metaphor for the city itself: strong, tangled, beautiful, resolute. Also like the city, our “tricentennial oak,” which was selected with the help of City Park officials, has stood as a silent sentinel through one city’s incredible journey. For 300 years they have stood, this city and this oak. Here’s to the next 300.