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Living Sanibel: Live oak is the heaviest wood in North America

By Staff | Jul 14, 2016

The live oak thrives from the Florida Keys north to Virginia and west to Texas. Although the live oak appears to be an evergreen, it is a semi-deciduous tree, shedding its leaves and regrowing new ones over a period of two weeks in the early spring. In its more northern range, it is a true deciduous oak, becoming leafless throughout most of the winter.

Live oak wood is the heaviest wood in North America, drying to a weight of 55 pounds per cubic foot. The U.S.S. Constitution, built in the early 1800s, was constructed completely out of live oak. When fired upon in the War of 1812 with England, cannonballs would literally bounce off of the ship, giving it the nickname, “Old Ironsides.” Live oak makes an excellent cooking and charcoal making wood, burning hot and long. It was a favorite cooking wood on the islands for early settlers.

In the wild, live oaks are an extremely important tree. They serve as a host tree for dozens of epiphytes, including Spanish moss, numerous bromeliads and resurrection ferns. The acorns it produced are a favorite for birds and mammals such as the gray squirrel and white-tailed deer. Their thick foliage is a favorite shelter for warblers, catbirds and a common nesting site for doves, mockingbirds and cardinals. If you look closely at the trunks of live oaks, you will note that they are generally peppered with the countless holes drilled by red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers.

It is also a wonderful shade tree, having one of the most sprawling canopies of any tree in North America. A mature live oak with a height of 50 feet can produce a canopy that measures 165 feet across. Found mostly as an ornamental tree on Sanibel, there is a large native stand of live oaks located in an inaccessible section of “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on the north side of San-Cap Road across from the Tradewinds Subdivision.

One of these trees lies at mile-marker 3.17 (west from Tarpon Bay Road) where one of its sprawling branches once draped over the bike path. Look for it near the cupola shelter that was erected beside it. There are also quite a number of young trees located along Island Inn Road.

This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.