The tree that keeps you raking

Travelers through the Deep South marvel at the eerily beautiful live oak trees with their draping of Spanish moss. From southeastern Virginia down the coast and along the Gulf of Mexico into Texas, this easily transplanted tree has long been popular as an ornamental.

Homeowners and others charged with grounds-keeping chores soon learn how the live oak (Quercus virginiana) got its name. Because the tree constantly grows new leaves, it is forever green, and thus live. However, the new leaves replace those that fall, which means constant raking for the fastidious. And with a tree that frequently has branches extending three times as broad as its height, that's a lot of labor.

Although now seldom used for commercial purposes, the hard, strong, and heavy wood of live oak was historically quite important. When ships were made entirely of wood, live oak provided the material for the angular parts of a ship's frame called the "knees." These were sawn from the nearly 60° junction of the tree's trunk with its large roots. The natural knees thus had interlocking grain that proved much stronger than straight timber cut and joined to the same shape. The U.S. government thought the wood so valuable for the country's ships that by 1845 it had acquired about 250,000 acres of live oak timberland in the South as a future reserve. But as the days of sail and wooden ships passed, the larder of live oak land was returned to the public for eventual settlement.