Evergreen, or just lucky?


Hey Ace: Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed an oak tree on the 250 bypass (heading east, on the left side of the McIntire Park interchange) that is still green and full of leaves. Driving west, it’s more of a greenish-brown. How does this happen in January, especially considering the winter we’ve been having?—Oak-K-Commuter-in-Charlottesville

The tree you’ve described sounds a lot like the Quercus virginiana, otherwise known as the southern live oak or Virginian live oak, an evergreen species endemic to the southeastern United States, and which Georgia (go figure) claims as its state tree.
Typically growing to 50 feet and often spanning three times that range, specimens of Q. virginiana have been known to survive for centuries. Consider, for example, the behemoth Angel Oak of Johns Island, South Carolina, standing 65 feet tall with a trunk diameter of nine feet, and estimated to be over 1400 years old. You can credit the live oak’s resiliency to flexibility of growth, a low water requirement, and a notoriously strong constitution capable of withstanding flooding, hurricanes, and even fire. 
This is why the USS Constitution—christened in 1797 and, as of 2010, still in active service—features a hull composed chiefly of southern live oak, cut and milled from Gascoigne Bluff on St. Simons island in Georgia, and won public renown during the War of 1812 as “Old Ironsides.” An honorary distinction, to be sure, but why no hat-tip to the tree itself? “Old Oaksides” might not strike the dread-inspiring chord that would befit an 18th century warship, but it has a certain antique, old-man-of-the-river ring to it—arguably more appropriate to the Constitution’s contemporary relic status. 
Look, if you’re going to fool around with live oak, you might as well think long-term.
You can ask Ace yourself. Intrepid investigative reporter Ace Atkins has been chasing readers’ leads for 21 years. If you have a question for Ace, e-mail it to ace@c-ville.com.