Nov/Dec 2008Greybeards of the ACEby Pete Laurie, photography by Phillip Jones

Live oaks, the signature trees of the ACE Basin and the most readily recognizable, for centuries have provided shade, mast, wildlife habitat and great enjoyment both for residents and visitors.

With the sun just rising over the Ashepoo River, I stop at the entrance to historic Airy Hall Plantation to admire the avenue of live oaks.

Among the drooping beards of Spanish moss, a white-eyed vireo sings its endlessly repeated chick-a-perweeoo-chick. From across an open field, a wood peewee plaintively whistles its own name. Above, on the massive limbs, dried resurrection ferns wait for the next thunderstorm as a pair of fox squirrels race through the maze of branches.

Live oaks take a very different approach from most oaks, the latter characterized by tall, straight trunks with simple horizontal limbs toward the top. Instead, live oaks develop a short, stout trunk and then send twisted branches in all directions producing a large canopy with no central core.

These inviting, all-encompassing trees have grown for hundreds of years throughout the ACE Basin Focus Area, becoming as much a symbol of this nationally recognized land protection project as the vast wetlands formed by the basins of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers.

While woodworkers prize most oaks for their straight, easy-to-work grain, live oaks have little commercial value, although shipbuilders long ago sought them for ribs and bow stems for wooden sailing craft. The twisted grain, which gives the branches their strength, thwarts any type of saw. Small pieces make good firewood, but no splitter can cleave larger sections, especially if the wood is given time to dry.

Live oaks grow in many settings, and those in isolated sites with plenty of room to spread their branches often become spectacular trees. The Richardson Oak at Donnelley Wildlife Management Area, for example, has a huge horizontal limb that stretches eastward from the trunk at least 65 feet.

Botanists classify them as red oaks, but live oaks act more like white oaks. Their acorns mature in one season, not two, and do not have a bitter taste. Each fall, many live oaks drop a huge crop of mast, an important food source for wildlife from deer to squirrels to turkeys to quail and countless other animals.

Birds such as blue jays break up the long narrow nuts and drop pieces far from the tree, spreading the harvest. In good mast years, acorns make up as much as 76 percent of the white-tailed deer diet, and because acorns decompose slowly, they provide nutrients for eight months out of the year.

Unlike most oak species, this unusual tree does not lose its leaves in the fall, so it appears "live" throughout the winter. Come spring, new growth quietly replaces most of last year's foliage, but the tree remains green all year.

Historically, planted avenues of oaks, quite common at ACE Basin plantations including The Grove, headquarters for the Hollings/ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge, have served for years as a welcome to the plantation house. Long before paved driveways, live oaks, with their extensive root systems, probably reduced mud and standing water on the entrance road, and the leafy branches contributed cooling shade to the house.

While a number of ACE Basin plantations have ancient avenues of oaks, in many cases the plantation house sits far back from the public road, and passersby cannot see the oaks. White Hall, The Bluff and Laurel Springs offer a few exceptions.

A phalanx of formidable oaks guards the entrance to remote Chehaw-Combahee Plantation at the end of Wiggins Road. On a May morning in the gathering breeze, the ancient trees stand immobile except for the branch tips and the swaying Spanish moss.

An orchard oriole, lost to view in the extensive foliage, sings every few seconds. In the distance, I hear the songs of all three of the coast's most colorful tropical finches - painted bunting, indigo bunting and blue grosbeak.

A healthy poison ivy vine, climbing a V-shaped oak trunk, sports ripening berries that promise winter nourishment for many avian species, especially the sapsuckers that seem to relish them.

Tough, ubiquitous live oaks grow in many settings. They often gain a foothold along the edges of the extensive salt marshes of the ACE Basin and on marsh hummocks. But buffeted by onshore winds and salt spray, they usually remain small and stunted - just as interesting as their upland counterparts but not as majestic.

Almost anywhere you wander throughout the 350,000-acre ACE Basin project you will encounter the area's signature tree and all the wild species it helps support.


Enjoy the best of the Palmetto State's great outdoors! Subscribe to the SC Wildlife Magazine!

For Wildlife Watchers

The Eastern oyster's vital role in South Carolina estuaries is underscored by SCDNR Biologist Nancy Hadley, "Oysters are ecosystem engineers - they build habitat; they control water quality; they modify their environment. They are keystone species, like coral reefs. more...