Revisiting the Hudson Oak: how old is this (or any) old oak?

I first visited and photographed the John Hudson Oak in late 2015 while searching for live oaks in the 29′ to 30′-plus circumference size in the Ascension Parish area. The John Hudson Oak is located in Prairieville, LA at the Hudson House, a beautiful historic family home that’s been in the Hudson family for several generations.

John Hudson Oak, 29′ 10″, October 2020

The Hudson Oak is the largest and most impressive of numerous old live oaks on the grounds. It has long sweeping limbs that reach to the ground on three sides. Mrs. Ellen Hudson Waller says that this and several other oaks on her property are Live Oak Society members but has no idea exactly how old this oak might be.

I returned to rephotograph and remeasure the old oak in November 2020, five years from my first visit. The oak had grown 5 inches and now measures 29′ 10″ in circumference. But how old is an oak of this size? In all honesty, one can only make an educated guess.

I’ve heard from several arborists that live oaks grow fastest in their first 100 to 150 years then slow down during the next 100 to 150 years. Then, supposedly they grow even slower during the next 100 to 150 years.

Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens, the founder of the Live Oak Society, often revisited many of the oldest oaks to which he was acquainted. He remeasured them over time and kept records of their growth rate. As a result, Dr. Stephens believed that if you could determine the average annual growth rate for a specific tree, you might get a closer estimate of its true age. Stephens estimated that if an oak had a girth of 17 feet or more, that it was at least 100 years of age. Today, the Live Oak Society states on their website that a live oak with a girth of 16 feet or more is at least 100 years old.

However, Edwin A. “Ned” McIlhenny (originator of Tabasco pepper sauce), wrote in a letter to Dr. Stephens in the 1930s that he had seen oaks grown in the thick forest at Avery Island that were as little as four feet in girth but had anywhere from 300 to 500 annual growth rings. According to McIlhenny, “A tree grown alone, under ideal conditions, will develop ten times as fast as a tree crowded in the forest under unfavorable conditions.”

So, who knows how old any live oak may actually be. Who can tell today what conditions existed around an old oak 100, 200, or 300 years ago, and whether it was growing alone or competing for resources with other trees? It’s likely that any live oak that was growing before Europeans arrived was in a forested setting or not, or whether land was cleared around the oak by the settlers, one can only speculate. As I’ve noted in other blog posts, when the first Europeans began to arrive in Louisiana in the 1700s, it’s likely that they either chose homesites near old oaks already growing for the protection that the trees offered from winds and weather, or else they planted oak trees near their homes for the same reasons.

All I can say for sure is that the Hudson Oak has grown an inch a year in girth over the past five years. So, if its growth rate has been a consistent one inch per year during most of its lifetime, it would today be close to 350 years of age. This is, at best, only an educated guess. If you consider the observations of E.A. McIlhenny, the size of a live oak may only be known for certain by the Creator or someone with a time machine…