Featured Woodlot Tree – Live Oak

Featured Woodlot Tree – October 2019

Common Name: Southern Live Oak – Species: Quercus virginiana – Family: Fagaceae

Written by: Kirby Fry – Photo by: Elenore Goode

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.  The second best time is now.” Chinese proverb.

Live oak trees are iconic trees here in Central Texas, they are evergreen, extremely strong, and make beautiful and effective shade trees.  The first tree house I built was in a live oak tree in our backyard. The tree house was three stories tall with operable doors and windows, carpeting, and electricity.  It took three of my friends to wrap our arms around its trunk.

If you could plant a tree and see it thrive, which one (or ones) would it be?  I would plant a live oak, a magnolia tree, and a bald cypress. We should continue on with our plans to plant forests and woodlots that we can build houses with, that function as windbreaks and erosion control, and that enrich natural regions.

Which trees and timber products do we need the most?  Let’s take a stroll down the lumber aisles of any Home Depot, Lowe’s, or McCoy’s.  There we find framing lumber milled from spruce, pine, and fir. The next aisle over we find sheets of plywood made from pine, oak, birch, and maple.  The next aisle over we find trim boards made from oak, cedar, pine, and poplar. Visit a specialty lumber store and you find oak, cypress, ash, maple, and mesquite among many others for furniture, cabinetry, and countertop production.  Not all of these species of trees can be grown here in Texas but many of them can.

In a sustainable human settlement, one management objective would be to plant enough trees to replace the lumber used to build your home.  A 1,000 square foot home requires approximately 6,300 board feet to complete. A mature pine tree at a height of 80 feet and width 2 feet will yield 754 board feet, so 8 or 9 mature pine trees are what we need to build a 1,000 square foot home. 

Each tree species grows into a different form and will vary on how many board feet it yields when mature, so a woodlot consists of a variety of different trees – oak, pine, cypress, ash, maple, and hickory, and those trees are used for a variety of different functions in the house – framing, planks, trim, and doors and windows.

The southern live oak tree has historically been used for ship building (because its trunk and mature branches are curved), and tool handles.  It can also be milled into posts and beams, and lumber for trim.

Propagation

The acorns from live oak trees should be collected in late October as they begin to fall from the tree, and then be planted directly into the ground.  The best acorns for germinating will still be on the tree. The larger the acorn, the more likely successful germination will be. Remove the acorn caps and any other debris, put the acorns in a bowl of water and discard the ones that float because the shell has been breached and air has gotten inside of it.

Sow the acorns in good, well-drained mineral / sandy soil with a 1 inch layer of compost on top.  The acorns will not need cold treatment or stratification. Partial shade on the west side is helpful, and moderate, consistent watering is essential.  Squirrel proof caging or exclosure for the seedlings is recommended.

Transplant your live oaks in the early spring.  Prune the roots of the tree to make transplanting easier and encourage a flush of new root growth closer to the root ball.  A wide shallow hole is best for live oaks. Water moderately and consistently for the first year, and do not add soil amendments or fertilizers.  Keep the top of the root crown 1 to 2 inches above the surface of the ground.  

Pruning & Maintenance

As your live oak grows, moderate branch pruning is recommended, removing just the lower branches to ensure a knot free trunk up to about 8 or 10 feet in height.  Proper wound care is required by minimizing the number of branches pruned back each year – 3 to 9, keeping the pruning cuts to the smallest diameter possible, and spraying a pruning tar on open cuts and wounds to prevent fungal infection.

The live oak tree will be mature in 50 years, however in a woodlot your cultivated trees are harvested at earlier stages in their life cycle for fence posts, tool handles, and smaller posts and beams.

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