By Lina Tran
The sun rises over the Tree of Life. Morning light sets the fringes of the live oak’s canopy ablaze and gradually fills the 160-foot crown. In defiance of nature, Audubon Institute installed lightning rods which snake their way across the tree’s major arteries and down to the ground. No storm will set fire to this nearly 300-year-old tree. Each winding limb weighs at least a ton, but the Herculean Tree of Life wields them gracefully. Far below its canopy, a photographer poses a newly engaged couple and their Pomeranian named Beignet. The couple embraces while sitting atop the wooden puddle that is the tree’s extended root system, and Beignet squirms uncomfortably in their arms. Another day in the life of one of New Orleans’ oldest residents.
Also known as the Etienne de Boré Oak, the Tree of Life is one of the city’s most spectactular live oak specimens. Historians speculate it first sprouted circa 1740, on the land that is now Audubon Park but was originally used as a sugar cane plantation by Jean Etienne de Boré, New Orleans’ first mayor. Today, few old growth oaks such as the Tree of Life exist in New Orleans.
Instead, the majority of the city’s oaks is a product of urban forestry. Walking down a street lined with live oaks is a complete sensory experience: Sprawling, weaving limbs overhead form a thick canopy of green. Underneath, it’s quiet, and 10 degrees cooler than anywhere else in the city. The existence of this lush forest is entirely credited to human intervention—where the oaks are now would be swamp if not for the draining of the city.
Live oaks, draped with Spanish moss and fuzzy with delicate resurrection ferns, are one of the most recognizable symbols of New Orleans. But most trees have lined the streets for just the last third of the city’s history.
“[A] lot of these trees aren’t as old as people think they are,” Tulane natural history professor Donata Henry said. She talked as if debunking some conspiracy theory. “We’ve created these boulevards and majestic oaks. At some point in time, New Orleans made this decision, that they are going to line our avenues, be planted in our neighborhoods and parks.”
Before Bienville founded New Orleans in 1718, the low land was thick with cypress swamps and the high ground, ancient live oak forests. Some estimate their lifespan can extend up to 2,000 years. But French colonists cleared the land for development, and today, only vestiges of these ancient forests remain in City Park’s Old Grove.
Live oaks, among the hardest of all trees, are strong and dense. The new port city’s growth depended on the trees for their angular, serpentine branches, used to construct the curves of ship frames. Thus, the live oaks of New Orleans left their home for open seas. Not until development of Uptown in the late 19th century did they begin to re-emerge in the cityscape.
“When people began moving out of the [French] Quarter, … they were moving into the American district, and businesses started moving to what is now St. Charles,” said Coleen Landry, chairman of the Live Oak Society. She told the planting of the city’s live oaks like a bedtime story. “There was nothing there, and they thought, ‘We need shade and beauty if people are going to come to our businesses.’ They began planting the oaks that you see there now. They are about a century old.”
Once valued for their wood, the live oaks are now cherished for their sprawling crowns. It may take 30 years before oaks develop a full-bodied canopy, but once they do, they assume an air of timelessness. In search of light, branches grow in every favorable direction, avoiding neighboring trees and therein forming the dense, interwoven canopy so familiar and precious to New Orleanians. It’s a symbiotic partnership: the more light they find, the more shade they cast.
“They’re a little mysterious, with one arm reaching out as if to grab you and another reaching out as if to embrace you,” Landry said. “Almost human.”
Like the 500 other species in the oak family, New Orleans’ live oaks (Quercus virginiana) have simple leaf structure and unique chemical defenses. Their leaves are glossy forest green on top and fuzzy gray below. Leaves produce tannins, compounds that defend the tree from herbivores. Used in the treatment of leather, tannins precipitate proteins, chemically forcing them into condensed, impenetrable knots. When insects eat the tannin-filled leaf, previous protein-dense meals in their stomach shrink in response. The insects must feel insatiable hunger.
“But what really makes an oak an oak is the fruit,” Henry said. “They have an acorn.”
Oak trees are monoecious, meaning a single tree develops both male and female sexual organs. In springtime, bright yellow catkins fuzzy with pollen dangle promiscuously over tiny female buds. Acorns emerge from fertilized female flowers in autumn. Both male and female flowers are so inconspicuous and simple in structure you’d hardly notice the oak blooms at all, foregoing allergies.
“If you have an allergy to that stuff, you’re basically allergic to tree sperm,” Henry said with a laugh.
The charismatic live oak is distinguished from its cousins by ever-present green leaves. While other deciduous oaks shed, baring their branches for part of the year, live oaks maintain striking canopies year-round by immediately replacing fallen leaves.
Though the name might imply otherwise, Quercus virginiana has a broad native range. They’re found throughout the American Southeast, from the Louisiana-Texas border in the west, through Florida, and up to Virginia. Life in this region means withstanding extreme, unstable conditions—hurricanes, floods, and saltwater intrusion. The live oak has proven it’s a grand, robust species.
In 1931, Dr. Edwin Stephens, president of what’s now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, founded the Live Oak Society, to honor the region’s oldest, most impressive trees. The Louisiana Garden Club Federation has overseen the society since the 1950s. To become a member of the Live Oak Society, one must have a waistline of at least eight feet, and, more importantly, be a live oak. Since live oaks don’t undergo linear growth, aging them is an imprecise process. A “waistline” measurement, taken four feet above the ground, of at least 16 feet indicates the tree is probably at least 100 years old, thus qualifying the tree for VIP membership. The society’s constitution, penned by Stephens, states members must pay dues of 25 acorns each year. Its current president is the esteemed Seven Sisters Oak, which resides in Mandeville, Louisiana. With a 38-foot waistline, this oak is estimated to be 1,200 years old.
Membership in the Live Oak Society is highly regarded throughout the Southeast, and as chairman of the Society, Landry is responsible for maintaining a registry of nearly 6,000 members.
“I’m the only human in the Society,” she said gravely, which makes her the only member able to face down politicians and construction workers.
In 2003, Landry visited a Harahan member known as “Old Dickory.” She found a red “X” painted upon Dickory’s 25-foot trunk—a mark for removal by highway construction workers with plans to construct a road through the Society affiliate.
“It was the Louisiana D.O.T.,” Landry said. “They were going to cut it down […] so I immediately went to Governor [Mike] Foster.” She told him the tree was estimated to be 600-800 years old, and “it would be a sin to destroy such a symbol of endurance.”
“It cost money, but they rerouted the roadway to save the tree,” Landry said with pride.
Others have not shared Old Dickory’s good fortune in the face of impending destruction. Spring of 1966 brought flowering oaks and chainsaw-wielding workers to the linear forest of North Claiborne Avenue, often described as the main street of African-American New Orleans at the time. Workers hacked down hundreds of mature oaks along the street. This was phase one of city planner Robert Moses’s contentious vision to install a highway, Interstate 10, that comes from the east and bifurcates at Elysian Field and North Claiborne avenues.
“You’d take the first, Riverfront Expressway, if you were going directly to the West Bank, and the second, Claiborne Expressway, if you were going downtown or to parts west,” New Orleans geographer Richard Campanella said.
The Riverfront Expressway announcement met fierce resistance. A major section of the expressway intended to tunnel below the French Quarter, where Harrah’s Casino stands today. Citizens and preservationists alike protested throughout the 1960s, insisting the construction would irreparably damage the historic Quarter.
“You didn’t see that, you didn’t hear that on the Treme side,” Campanella said. “That was a poorer, predominantly African-American neighborhood. This was right at the time of the civil rights movement. There was much less a notion of civic and political engagement.” By the time Riverfront Expressway plans were successfully terminated in 1969, the Claiborne Expressway was 30 to 40 percent complete, Campanella estimated.
“In curious and moving ways, the local neighborhood has sort of… made peace with the expressway, or bridge, as some call it,” Campanella said. “Brass band music reverberates off the bottom of the bridge, which provides shelter from rain. Much of what people call ‘Black Mardi Gras’ takes place right under the expressway.”
Though the structure eclipsed the once-picturesque boulevard, it figures uniquely in Treme today. In conjunction with the New Orleans African American Museum’s 2002 Restore the Oaks project, artists painted the expressway’s underbelly with oaks and historic Treme individuals.
Today, oaks are virtually tourist attractions at historic Louisiana plantations, Audubon Park, St. Charles, and Tulane’s Uptown campus—all institutions with histories of affluence. This begs the question: is the distribution of New Orleans’ live oaks coupled with socioeconomic factors? While Landry recognized the live oaks are a symbol of the South, she said that wealth of the neighborhood has nothing to do with where they’re planted.
But Campanella said it’s probably not as clear-cut as this.
“At a very coarse level, there is a correlation between older, more prosperous neighborhoods—particularly those that have been long-term prosperity as opposed to recent gentrification—and their foliated, live oak coverage,” Campanella said. “The reverse is not necessarily true.”
Look at the aerial photos or satellite maps. The Garden District, one of New Orleans’ long-term prosperous neighborhoods to which Campanella references, is invariably dense with the dark green, cauliflower texture indicative of full-bodied oak canopies. But splotches of that texture can also be observed in economically troubled neighborhoods, just as bare streets can house wealthy residents.
Like sentinels, the city’s oldest oaks have witnessed passing human generations. The Tree of Life has graced countless weddings, first kisses, and drug-fueled jamborees. Before City Park became City Park, its older oaks were sites of hangings and duels between French colonists. But these tricentenarians are the minority, and most of the park’s trees, planted during major development phases in the early 1900s, are younger than jazz.
Regardless of their age, New Orleans’ live oaks are a testament to the species’ vigor. “They’re known as hurricane trees,” Landry said. “The tree is wide and low. So it carries the wind over the branches. [I]t carries the wind over your house, not into your house.”
Most of the city’s oaks survived Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flood; Katrina felled 10 percent of the urban forest, and 2,000 City Park trees. The park has since planted 6,000 trees, and federal disaster recovery funds filled holes in oak corridors.
Those disaster recovery funds reflect just how important the live oaks are to New Orleans. They are integral to the cityscape, a backbone for the city’s major thoroughfares. “Second only to the historical architecture as a driving, distinguishing element that creates a sense of place and distinction here,” Campanella said.
But the relationship between city and megaflora is complex; live oaks may not be suited to urban environments. Parked cars and concrete compact soil around the roots and disrupt nutrient, water, and oxygen cycling. Like a wine glass, oak roots form a wide, shallow base. Unearthed sidewalks and cracked pipes are a constant nuisance. Despite the city’s attempts to frame streets and carve canopies to make way for telephone wires, live oaks literally uproot their concrete confines.
“You try pushing a kid around in a stroller, and you see a whole different city,” Campanella said, laughing. “But I think they more than make up for that in their stupendous magnificence. Cross a certain street, and suddenly you’re in this incredible oak canopy. You look at the branches, and they intertwine in a very poetic way. If an artist did that, it’s like, ‘Hey buddy, simmer down, no one’s going to believe this!’”
Who are we to judge if they’re worth it? If the city doesn’t sink first, the oaks will outlive us all.
Lina Tran is a Tulane senior studying English and Cell and Molecular Biology.