They show their age beautifully—and yet they are ageless. Orlando’s live oak trees have put down roots, spread out and thrived for centuries. And their magnificence continues to grow on us.
A live oak tree never takes a day off. Other oaks go dormant and shed their leaves as the seasons change. A southern live oak won’t let up for so much as a coffee break. It’s always active, always “live,” hence the name.
The trees are loners, having evolved in sandy soil where few other species of trees could survive. It was there, in the sparseness of the sand, that they fine-tuned a simple but distinctive survival strategy, one that has earned them a page in American history, a place in the heart of the South, and a niche in Orlando’s civic DNA:
They sprawl. Magnificently.
Trees that evolved in thick forests, shoulder to shoulder, are genetically programmed to grow up. Literally. They have to climb rapidly to compete with their neighbors for a place in the sun. Live oaks take a horizontal tack, having adapted to the one amenity the sand ridges had to offer: elbow room.
They don’t grow up. They grow out.
Michelle Blake writes in her journal while being cradled in the arms of “The Mayor’’ at Loch Haven Park.
A live oak will put on three or four inches of girth for every inch of height. Plant it on the 50-yard line, give it a couple hundred years or so, and the tree will occupy half of your football field, encircling itself with a carousel of giant limbs, each one as big around as the trunks of most trees. The lower limbs will gradually sink under their own weight to rest on the ground and send up secondary branches of their own. The equally massive higher limbs will spread out above them in a sinuous, implausible, gravity-defying array.
Many an Orlando suburbanite has eyed those huge limbs, wondering if they’re going to crash down any minute on hearth and home. Sometimes they’ll call Andy Kittsley, who will come out, take a look, and likely wind up talking the nervous homeowner off the ledge.
Andy Kittsley, the city of Orlando’s forestry manager, stands next to the oak at Big Tree Park. A 1972 lightning strike hasn’t kept the 350-year-old giant from extending its reach.
Kittsley is forestry manager for the city of Orlando. At 63, he’s been functioning as the area’s de facto tree whisperer for nearly three decades. It’s in his genes. His father owned and harvested timberland up north. His mother used to sing him the iconic Joyce Kilmer “I think that I shall never see” poem when he was a boy. When he lectures about trees, it is difficult not to think about all those Facebook pictures of people who look like their pets, while noticing that the unruly strands of his shoulder-length gray hair have begun to bear a vague resemblance to Spanish moss.
The loneliest oak: Though surrounded by high-rises
and asphalt, this tree at Jefferson
treet and Palmetto Avenue continues to
thrive—and spread out.
“When you work out, the muscles in your arms get stronger,” says Kittsley. “It’s the same with a tree. If a tree is in a place where the wind is blowing hard and making its limbs sway, that movement triggers hormones that control the growth of those limbs and makes them stronger.” A live oak tree is like an athlete: It can do things that other trees can’t—we’re looking at you, laurel oaks—because it was born to be a jock. And it’s been practicing.
The wood of a live oak is denser and stronger throughout than that of other trees, a characteristic that was capitalized on by 17th century shipwrights, who used wood harvested from live oaks to craft the hulls of their vessels. When the cannonballs of a British frigate bounced off the hull of the USS Constitution in a famous naval engagement during the War of 1812, earning the American warship the nickname “Old Ironsides,” its grateful sailors had live oak trees to thank.
In fiction, as in fact, the oaks have occasionally been called upon to play an important role. Ranging from Virginia to Texas, live oaks have long been embraced as regional icons. It’s no coincidence that they make key appearances in two of the greatest Southern novels ever written. When Boo Radley, the reclusive hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, leaves trinkets for the two young children he eventually rescues, it’s in the hollow of a live oak tree. When, in The Yearling, Jody must bid farewell to both the innocence of his childhood and the fawn that had been his pet, it’s in the shade of a live oak.
There are 18,500 live oak trees on city property in Orlando, and roughly three times that many on private property. Because of their location and age, a handful of those trees have risen to celebrity status. This can be a mixed blessing, as it may be for the stand of eight live oaks on Constitution Green, along South Street, southeast of Lake Eola.
A visit to those trees can make you feel like a time traveler, transported from a 21st century thicket of high-rise urbanites walking their Min-Pins into an enclave of primeval behemoths, covered in resurrection ferns and wrapped in mossy vines the size of a man’s forearm. The eldest tree among them, at roughly 200 years old, casts such a spell of dignified, impervious natural grace that the presence of a metal trash container beneath it feels like a heckler marring a masterpiece.
The trees are on private property that the city has been leasing and operating as a park since 1987, which it did to stave off a plan to build a grocery store on the lot. But downtown real estate is worth a lot more now, and the landowners are exploring the idea of terminating the lease and cutting down the trees to make way for a development. City officials have vowed to staunchly oppose the plan.
In downtown Orlando, the equilibrium between shade trees and progress goes way back. In the late 1800s, when the town was a sweltering frontier outpost, scrub brush reigned. You were more likely to bump into a stray cow on the unpaved streets than to find relief from a shade tree. Civic leaders such as “King of the Crackers” Jacob Summerlin and Mayor Matthew Marks were judged in part by how many saplings were planted under their watch.
The city has an ordinance that allows it to protect a tree from being cut down by classifying it as a “historic specimen.” It was used in 1996 to save a huge live oak tree that continues to thrive, though it is surely the loneliest live oak tree in the city. Like some huge beast squeezed into a cage that is far too small for it, à la King Kong, the tree can take you by surprise as it hovers between a parking lot and a multi-story parking garage at the corner of Jefferson Street and Palmetto Avenue. The presence of the tree in a concrete jungle is a breath of fresh air in more ways than one: In a year’s time, a tree that size produces enough oxygen for two people, while absorbing 48 pounds of carbon dioxide, of which downtown Orlando has plenty to spare.
Big Tree Park’s namesake took root 3½ centuries ago along what is now Thornton Avenue, north of Marks Street.
It may seem as though there’s no pattern to the presence of naturally occurring live oak trees, but that isn’t true. The answer, again, is in the sand. As the Florida peninsula gradually rose up from the sea, the trees congregated in the slightly elevated sand ridges that remained, which is why some older Orlando neighborhoods have a large population of live oak trees all their own.
Laurin MacLeish, a retired Orlando kindergarten teacher, grew up during the 1960s in just such a neighborhood: the Spring Lake subdivision, just northwest of downtown.
The neighborhood was secluded enough that children could run free in a pack from yard to yard, and the live oak trees they encountered along the way became recreational outposts. A tree could earn a name for itself in a neighborhood like that, as evidenced by the ever-popular Bag Swing Tree, rigged up with a platform and a burlap bag tied with a stout rope to an overhanging limb.
Other trees were for more sober occasions.
When one of the MacLeishes’ dogs, Smithy, wandered off and was hit by a car, the children put his body in a wagon, led a funeral procession around the neighborhood, and buried him beneath a live oak tree.
The live oaks were so integral to the bond between neighbors that when one of the oldest trees became diseased and had to be cut down, its owners circulated a eulogy for it, noting all it had witnessed, from a marriage conducted beneath its boughs to the day little Martha Revere fell from a limb and broke her arm in two places.
But for MacLeish, the most memorable tree was one whose massive trunk was a mere five steps away from the front door of her home. One of its limbs—it has since been removed, though the tree itself still stands—stretched out at eye level and roughly paralleled a brick walkway that led from the driveway to the door.
“When I was little,” she says, “my father would plant little trinkets along the limb. Then, when he came home from work, he’d put me on his shoulders and walk me along, telling me that fairies had come during the night and left presents for me in the tree. And I would ride on his shoulders and collect them. It was enchanting.”
The oldest oak tree on city property is the namesake attraction of Big Tree Park, not to be confused with the park of the same name in Seminole County. This one is essentially a glorified vacant lot, set aside in the 1920s in honor of its solitary attraction, a tree that is now roughly 350 years old.
Laurin MacLeish (left) and sister
Patti MacLeish Gordon in the
middle of a live oak where they played
as kids. The sprawling tree is just
outside the front door of the house in
which they once lived.
The park can take you by surprise, tucked away as it is in the middle of an older neighborhood of single-story homes and brick-lined streets on Thornton Avenue, three blocks north of Colonial Drive.
The tree was struck by lightning in 1972 by a bolt that scoured its way across a massive limb on its southeast side, then traveled down the trunk and blasted a hole the size of a basketball at its base. It was a blow that would have killed any other tree. But this one survived, though what’s left of it now conjures up the melancholy grace of broken marble columns and forgotten deities.
The majority of its limbs have been amputated. The stricken limb is still there, though, still peeled bare and blackened with a scar that would put Harry Potter’s to shame. Yet the leaves are still green in the crown that remains, and one lower limb still thrives, curving out and away from the trunk to dip down, take root, and send up new, bright green growth. The limb, as it happens, is extended in the same direction that the bolt of lightning came from, as if to say: “Is that all you got?”
The prettiest of Orlando’s celebrated live oaks—the “seniors,” as Kittsley calls them—is part of a stand of live oak trees that form a long, loose semicircle in front of the Mennello Museum of American Art in Loch Haven Park.
Some of the lower limbs actually curve down, plunge into the earth and re-emerge several times, like skipping stones or land-bound sea serpents. The lower circle of limbs is nearly symmetrical, and would be more so if a driver hadn’t lost control a few years back, veering off Princeton Street and crashing into one of them that was damaged so badly it had to be removed.
The circumference of the tree is large enough that groups often meet beneath its crown, on a thick carpet of leaves and beneath a leafy canopy in what amounts to an open-air clubhouse—though “chapel” might be the better word for the gathering of two dozen women who set up a circle of folding chairs beneath the tree one recent Saturday morning.
The women belong to a spiritual support group called the Stone Circle. They often meet beneath the tree, and when an inquisitive stranger interrupted the gathering, one of its members, Virginia Strait, offered up a perfect definition for a live oak.
“I call it a forest of one,” she said.