The Live Oaks of LSU

Louisiana State University was established in 1860 and construction began at the current location in the early 1920s. Every old oak in Louisiana has stories connected to it. LSU’s oaks are no exception.

Oxley Oak, LSU Quadrangle

Steele Burden and the origin of LSU’s oaks—Ollie Bryce Steele Burden (known simply as Steele) grew up in Baton Rouge and spent weekends on his family’s 600-acre farm, Windrush Plantation (now Burden Gardens). As a young man Steel traveled to Europe, and was inspired by the gardens he visited there, As an adult, he moved onto the Windrush property permanently and began his experiments with garden design, creating a small formal garden there.

Though he never earned a degree in landscape architecture, Steele took courses at LSU before he began working as a gardener and landscaper for the City of Baton Rouge. In the late 1920s, he designed plantings for Baton Rouge’s City Park and later became its superintendent of gardens. His work on City Park drew the attention and admiration of administrators at LSU and he was invited in 1932 to work for the university as the first grounds caretaker and landscape architect.

From its beginnings, LSU’s campus was envisioned to be a park-like setting whose natural beauty might inspire learning and scholarship. The physical layout was first devised by the Olmstead Brothers, sons of Frederick Law Olmstead, whose landscape architecture firm designed Central Park in New York, Audubon Park in New Orleans, several national parks, and other notable university campuses.

Since the Olmsted brothers were strictly landscape architects, German architect Theodore Link was hired in 1921 to design the buildings for the new campus. He adapted the Olmsteds’ layout and added his own ideas to the specific placement and design of structures. Some of the first buildings to be constructed were those around the Quadrangle.

Steele was given a free hand, but a tight budget, to transform primarily empty agricultural acreage into a pleasant green space. He began planting what he referred to as “street trees” along campus thoroughfares and around the first buildings—the parade grounds and around the Quadrangle complex.

These trees were hearty native stock that Steele knew would provide the most long-term benefit for the campus—primarily southern live oaks (Quercus virginiana), interspersed with southern magnolia trees (Magnolia grandiflora), and pine trees (pinus species) due to the compatibility of these trees. Steel obtained many of these trees with the help of E.A. McIlhenny’s Avery Island nursery and planted them based on his “intuitive” approach to garden design.

Historic aerial photographs of the campus show that the Quadrangle oaks were well-established by February of 1938. That would make the earliest oaks more than 90 years of age today, since McIlhenny’s young oaks were ordinarily 5 to 10 years of age when purchased. 

Today, LSU has more than 1300 live oaks on campus comprising what has become an “urban forest”  

Supposedly the oldest oak on the LSU campus grows between the Manship School of Mass Communications and Hodges Hall. It predates the earliest oak plantings by Steele Burden and may be well over 200 years old.

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…

The man who planted oaks

This post remembers Leonard Lasseigne, the man who, according to his widow Janet, planted the original live oaks on the Nicholls State University campus in Thibodaux, Louisiana, around 1950 and 1951. Though the Nicholls oaks are not as old as other trees in the 100 Oaks Project blog, they are significant for the number of oaks on campus and the role that Nicholls State has played in the local history of Lafourche Parish.

If you’re walking the path along the bayou-side greenspace behind the Nicholls fountain, you’ll find this placque in his honor placed beneath a young live oak tree. Lasseigne was an avid gardener and live oak lover. He is credited with planting several live oaks in locations around Thibodaux.

Oaks along Acadia Drive, view toward Hwy. 1

Some 70 years ago (as of 2020), Leonard acquired and relocated 45 young live oaks from Georgia Plantation near Labadieville to the growing Nicholls campus. He planted the oaks on both sides of the two main campus streets flanking the administration buildings on Rienzi Circle, along Acadia Dr. and Madewood Dr., and along Audubon Avenue at the north edge of campus. These mature oaks today help create the unique character and beauty of the Nicholls campus.

Oak on Rienzi Circle, next to Elkins Hall

Nicholls was founded by the state of Louisiana in 1948 as part of the LSU system of colleges and named Francis T. Nicholls Junior College of Louisiana State University. The new campus was carved out of the surrounding sugarcane fields next to Acadia Plantation, a historic sugarcane plantation once owned by the Bowie brothers—James Bowie and his brothers Rezin P. Bowie, and Stephen Bowie. James “Jim” Bowie, is probably most well-known for his role in the Battle of the Alamo in Texas in 1836.

Oak and azaleas on north side of Rienzi Circle with Elkins Hall in background

More River Road Oak Allées – Houmas House

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A portion of Houmas House oak allée with six oaks.

In three previous posts, I’ve spotlighted the historic oak allées at Evergreen, Whitney, and Oak Alley Plantations, as well as St. Joseph allée at Manresa Retreat (the old Jefferson College) in Convent, LA.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one more allee that still remains (in part) at Houmas House plantation, located on the east bank of the river in Darrow, LA, about a half-hour drive upriver from the Grammercy bridge.

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Houmas House mansion, viewed from the John Burnside Oak.

According to “64 Parishes,” the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ publication and website, “Despite extensive investigation, the exact chronology and early building history of Houmas House remain unknown. What is documented is that it stands on land purchased in 1774 from the Houmas Indians. By 1809, a house existed on the site, perhaps built by William Donaldson and John W. Scott, who then owned the land.” General Wade Hampton (1752–1835), from South Carolina, acquired the plantation in 1811 and in 1840, Hampton’s daughter Caroline and her husband, John Smith Preston, built the current two-and-a-half-story Greek Revival manor.

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Houmas House oak allée, view from #2 set of oaks from the main house

The surviving oak allée consists of eight oaks. They are all of what remains from a much longer allée that once existed but was destroyed to create a setback of the Mississippi River levee.

In 2003, New Orleans businessman and preservationist Kevin Kelly purchased the home and the entire contents of the mansion and began restoring the mansion and grounds. According to the Houmas House website, Kelly chose to select the best features from various periods of the property’s history to showcase a legacy of each family who lived in the mansion. Check the Houmas House Plantation website for information on tours.

 

 

 

Revisiting Louisiana’s Oldest Oaks – My top 23

A number of readers have been visiting my 2015 post about my search for the oldest live oaks in Louisiana; those that are near 30 feet in girth or larger. Since 2015, I’ve added a few more old oaks to this list and am still tracking down leads on others. Thankfully, I keep learning of new (new to me at least) old oaks that are potentially in this size and age range.

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Boudreaux family oak, along Bayou Lafourche near St. Charles

These oaks are of a generation of trees that were likely already growing when the first Europeans settled along the rivers and bayous of south Louisiana. Tragically, we are losing these elder oaks, one by one each year, through storms, land development, and pollution.  My goal is to create a record of them being here and possibly capture some of the human stories connected with them.

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La Belle Colline Oak, near Lafayette

My list of historic old oaks is certainly not all-inclusive. There are a couple of other people out there in the world documenting old trees in Louisiana. They may have documented other old oaks that I haven’t found yet and photographed.  I get comments regularly from people who claim to know of some old tree nearby that’s really old and big! These are on my shortlist of “yet-to-find” oaks that I’m slowly visiting and photographing. Here’s what I’ve documented currently:

  1. Seven Sisters Oak – 39′-10″;  Lewisburg / Mandeville (President of Live Oak Society and National Champion Tree for Quercus virginiana species with American Forests Big Tree Registry)
  2. Randall Oak – 35′-8″;  New Roads (it’s on the Pointe Coupee live oak tour)
  3. Edna Szymoniak Live Oak – 35′-6″; LSU Hammond Research Station, Hammond
  4. Lorenza Dow Oak – 35′ 5″;  (May have been the Dr. E.O. Powers Oak) – Grangeville Masonic Lodge; a 2nd unnamed oak on the lodge grounds is 27′-11″
  5. La Belle Colline Oak – 34′ plus; Between Sunset and Carencro on private property
  6. The Martin Tree 34′ – Gonzales; (named for Miss Delba Martin) on private property
  7. The Governor’s Oak – 33′-3″; Baton Rouge, on Highland Road
  8. Lastrapes Oak (Seven Brothers Oak)  32′-3″ (largest section); Washington, LA
  9. Blanchet Oak – 32′ 2″; Lafayette (featured in a recent US News story)
  10. Jefferson College Oak – 32′ 1″; On the upriver edge of the grounds at Manresa House of Retreats, Convent
  11. Boudreaux Friendship Oak – 31′-10″; Lafayette (in top 10 oaks of Acadiana)
  12. Lagarde Oak – 30′-11”; Luling, LA
  13. The Mays Oak – 30’-11″; at Live Oaks Plantation, north of Rosedale
  14. Grosse Tete Oak – 30′ 2″; Bayou Grosse Tete, right off of I-10
  15. Etienne de Bore’ Oak – 30′; Audubon Park, NOLA; also called the “Tree of Life” by New Orleans locals
  16. The Rebekah Oak – 30′; on Poydras Hwy. near Breaux Bridge
  17. Hudson Oak – 29′-9″; Hudson House (private home), Prairieville
  18. Grenier Oak or Donald Peltier Oak – 29′-9″;  above Thibodaux on Bayou Lafourche (located on very private land).
  19. Josephine Stewart Oak – 29′ 11″; Oak Alley Plantation; Vacherie
  20. Stonaker Oak – 29′ 6″; New Roads, LA
  21. St. John’s Cathedral Oak – 29′ 6″; Lafayette, LA (Top 10 oaks of Acadiana)
  22. Boudreaux Oak – 29′ 2″; On Hwy 1, near the St. Charles Bridge (on Bayou Lafourche Live Oak Tour)
  23. Mr. Mike Oak – 29′; near Franklin (on the grounds outside of Oaklawn Plantation) 

NOTE:  Thanks to this post, one reader sent directions to another 29-ft.-plus live oak north of Opelousas and Washington.  Thanks, Will Favre!  I appreciate all leads to new old oaks and will get to them all in time.  – BG