How to Save a Historic Oak

If you want the practical action steps, go straight to the end of this post…

The situation.  I’ve received several emails in recent months from individuals desperately looking for information on how they can save a treasured old oak in their community from removal. The circumstances were all sadly similar.  In each case, a developer, or individual had purchased the land on which an old or historic oak (or oaks) had been growing, possibly for centuries, but certainly for long enough that the tree had become a much-loved part of local history and culture. 

Yet, the new landowner could only see an old tree that was in the way—of a new hotel, housing development, roadway, or real-estate expansion of one form or another. In some cases, an arborist had been hired (by the developer) to give an opinion that the tree was very “old” and possibly even declining in health.

In most cases, the tree was named after a well-known individual and had even been registered with the Live Oak Society as a sign of its importance to those who cared for it and lived around it. The question I got repeatedly was, “certainly, there must be some law protecting a ‘registered’ tree from being cut down?” 

Unfortunately, registering an oak with the Live Oak Society or any other local organization provides no special protection to a tree from its removal. Registering a live oak is only a first step to recognizing an oak as a notable and loved part of a community. Registration is a good idea because it makes people aware of the historical significance of the tree, but unless your community, town, county commission, or other law-making body has created an ordinance or code to protect elder live oaks or other historic trees, then your oak may have no legal protection from the chainsaws of progress and development.    

There are rare cases in Louisiana where oaks have been saved. These are situations that I know of in Louisiana where individuals have joined together with neighbors and friends, petitioned local leaders, and raised enough public support (and interest) to save specific trees from being cut down. 

Mr. Al Oak, near New Iberia, LA

The Mr. Al Oak. In 2009, a 150-year-old live oak tree named “Mr. Al” was saved from certain death by a group of local citizens in the New Iberia area. The old oak was slated for removal by the Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) as part of a frontage road construction project on State Hwy. 90.  The property owner, Kelli Peltier, called friends and began a petition to save Mr. Al.  With the help of local organizations and concerned citizens, as well as support from an ex-governor of Louisiana, the DOTD chose to move the old oak rather than cut it down. (You can read the whole story here.)

Old Dickory Oak, Harahan, LA

Old Dickory Oak. In 2003, neighborhood citizens in Harahan, with the help of The Live Oak Society chairperson Coleen P. Landry, were able to convince the DOTD to reroute the road improvements around the old oak.  Landry and the Society also played a role in saving a stand of 13 live oaks near Jeanerette threatened by highway construction by appealing directly to then-governor Bobby Jindal to help save the oaks. 

The Youngsville Oak.  In another case in which an old historic oak was slated to be removed to make way for a new traffic circle along state Hwy. 92 in Youngsville, local citizens with the help of Trees Acadiana, a local tree-preservation organization, raised enough local support (through the local press and well-known artist George Rodrigue) to convince public officials to spare the tree.  The common thread in each of these stories is local support.

Steps to take to save a tree.

1.  If an important oak tree in your neighborhood or community is in immediate danger of removal, the first step is to make loud positive noise.

Start a petition, get help and support from local clubs, tree-friendly organizations, and gardening groups, as well as the local media. Create a story of the human history of the old tree and emphasize why it’s important to your community’s cultural and historical identity to save the tree. Appeal to your local city council, commissioners, and mayor as well as state-level politicians. Make a strong “positive” argument for these decision-makers to gain their support.  A positive argument is important.  Look for a win-win solution, and other options for the new property / tree owner, Highway Department, or developer that will make it worth their while to spare the tree. In the process, they’ll create good feelings, positive publicity, and positive relationships with the community. There’s always a positive benefit for both sides by saving a tree. 

Not sure how to start a petition? Here are two websites that can help you start a petition online and get it distributed to your community.

• Petitions.net – This site lets you create a professional petition online, gather signatures, and present your results to decision-makers. It’s free and easy to use.

Change.org – This website is run by a non-profit and though the petition function they offer is also free and easy to use, they also offer help to review and tweak your petition wording to make the strongest possible message. A donation is requested for this service that is well worth it.

2. Prepare now.  Talk to your local garden clubs and find out what laws or ordinances your town or city may have in place already. Does your town have a town or city arborist?  Contact that person.  He or she can provide guidance on what to do. Most cities in the U.S. have some sort of ordinance that provides guidelines for the removal of large and old trees. Your next step is to get your local ordinance or codes amended or supplemented to include protection for historic, notable, or significant trees.  Take steps to establish legal protections now, before a favorite old tree is threatened.  

How you can change local laws.  

The LSU Agriculture Department has created a guide “To Writing A City Tree Ordinance” (a downloadable PDF can be found here). This guide provides a model that you can follow to draft and establish a “tree management ordinance” for both small and large communities in Louisiana or elsewhere.  

Post-publication addition to this post: I’m heartened to read two different stories today in newspapers in North Carolina and Florida where the communities started petitions to save old oaks from being removed to make way for new development. These stories are new, as of the day I’m writing this, but the petitions got the attention of both their local government officials and the news media. That’s the way change starts, many voices being raised to create laws to protect historic trees and urban forests and to reconsider the importance of oaks and other trees to the health and well-being of a community.

The Live Oaks of LSU

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

Oxley Oak, LSU Quadrangle

Steele Burden and the planting 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.

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. Though, some oaks growing along bayous, may have been growing alone. Who can tell today if land was cleared around an oak by settlers, or if they planted the oak after they arrived. One can only speculate. As I’ve noted in other blog posts, when the first Europeans began to arrive in Louisiana in the 1700s, they often chose homesites near old oaks for the protection that the trees offered from winds and weather.Yet, many others 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

In Thibodaux, LA – 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 (the original main classroom building on campus) in background.

Still 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 toward the levee

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.