Nothing says southern charm like the old expansive oaks strewn across the landscape. From Gone With the Wind’s Twelve Oaks plantation to todays mature oaks that still dot the Northeast Florida landscape, oaks are an integral part of of our southern history. However, many people still have no idea how to identify the different types of oaks in our area.
Live oaks grow upwards of eighty (80) feet tall but can grow as wide as one-hundred (100) feet wide, earning it a reputation as a formidable landscape shade tree. Water oaks, on the other hand, tend to grow in a conical form being much taller than it is wide.
Live oaks have evergreen leaves that are oblong and up to 5” long. The live oak keeps its leaves until they die, at which time they fall off. The water oak, however, has a typical oak leaf that presents with 3 lobes at the tip and grow between two (2) to four (4) inches long. Unless the water oak is planted in warmer climates, like zones 8 - 10, it will lose its leaves in the fall.
The live oak has one-inch long, oblong shaped acorns that have a scaly cap. This scaly cap often sticks to the branch of the tree with only the acorn dropping to the ground. The water oak has a small round acorn about a half an inch in diameter with a wooly cap that falls attached to the acorn.
The live oak root system is widespread and shallow requiring good drainage and plenty of oxygen. These root systems are shared between other trees making them a formidable foundation for other live oaks, but structures are often in danger if too close to these systems. Water oaks also have shallow root systems that compete for nutrients and water in the soil making it a problem to maintain grass and other close proximity plants.
Water oaks have a weak wood in comparison to its live oak counterpart. The water oak is prone to wind damage, and once this has occurred, is incredibly susceptible to rot and decay. In fact, the water oak trunk is often rotten by the time the tree is fifty (50) years old. Proper maintenance of the water oak can make it a great shade tree for the first thirty to forty years.
Live oaks have a very strong hard wood that was originally used in shipbuilding because the natural curvature of the branches was perfectly shaped for ship hulls. While they can be difficult to train, with proper care and regular maintenance, these trees provide hundreds of years of life, shade, as well as a representation of our southern heritage.