The Live Oak Society—the original 43 member trees

The first 43
I recently received copies of two articles written by Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens (founder of the Live Oak Society) for the Louisiana Conservation Review (a discontinued publication of the Louisiana Department of Conservation). Many thanks to Dr. Bruce Turner and Jane Vidrine of the Special Collections Division at the Edith Garland Dupré Library at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette for their help in getting copies of these articles. (They are posted under the “Pages” heading in the right table of contents column of the blog. When the page opens just click on the title and it will open a photocopy of the original article.)

The first article titled, “I Saw In Louisiana a Live Oak Growing,” contains the original proposal by Dr. Stephens to establish an organization comprised entirely of live oak trees that were 100 years of age or older (now called The Live Oak Society). The article’s title is borrowed from a Walt Whitman poem of the same name. This article, dated April 1934, marks the founding of the Live Oak Society in Louisiana and the South.

Stonaker Oak, New Roads vicinity (29' 6

Stonaker Oak or St. Maurice Oak, New Roads vicinity (29′ 6″) #16 of 43


Stonaker Oak, view #2

The second article is titled “The Live Oak Society.” In it, Dr. Stephens discusses the reactions and comments he received from his previous article and recommendation to form the Live Oak Society.

Stephens’ appreciation for live oaks grew over many years of living in Louisiana and from frequent motor trips he took with his wife along the back roads and byways through Cajun country. Influenced by his background as a science teacher, he observed, measured, photographed, and collected data on the oaks, taking special interest in the oldest and largest of the species.

Parks Oak #1; 25+ feet (#10 of 43)

From his perspective as a scholar and poet, he recognized the deeper truth of this Southern icon—that more than any other aspect of the landscape, the live oak symbolically reflects the most memorable and distinctive characteristics of the cultures and people that settled this rich alluvial region: strength of character, forbearance, longevity, and a hearty nature.

Stephens wrote, “To my mind the live oak is the noblest of all our trees, the most to be admired for its beauty, most to be praised for it strength, most to be respected for its majesty, dignity and grandeur, most to be cherished and venerated for its age and character, and most to be loved with gratitude for its beneficence of shade for all the generations of man dwelling within its vicinity.

…I suggest that the members of the Association shall consist of trees whose age is not less than a hundred years. I at present number among my personal acquaintance forty-three such live oaks in Louisiana, eligible to qualify for charter membership.” Seventy-four years later, the Live Oak Society counts more than 7,000 member oaks on its registry in 14 states (and now includes Junior League trees with a girth of at least eight feet).


Gebert Oak, study 3, #43 of original 43 inductee oaks


Gebert Oak, study 1, New Iberia, LA

In 2008, I wrote an article for the American Forests magazine in which I attempted to locate and photograph as many of the original Live Oak Society inductees as I could locate. Using Dr. Stephens’’ 74-year-old article as a guide, I began retracing his drives across South Louisiana, along bayous with names like Teche, Lafourche, Maringouin, Grosse Tete, and Terrebonne—French and native American names that evoke romantic images of moss-draped trees, Cajun fisherman in flatboats, sultry heat, and white-columned plantation homes. Dr. Stephens listed the 43 charter oaks in order of their size—large to less large—noting their circumference, name (usually that of a sponsor), and general location.

Avery Island Oak number 2; 24' 1" (#21 of 43)

Avery Island Oak number 2; 24′ 1″ (#21 of 43)

I quickly realized that I was naïve about the degree of change that can occur in a landscape over 74 years. Plantation homes have faded away, changed names, been parceled off and subdivided, or simply torn down. Properties have changed owners and entire families have died or moved away.

Avery Island Oak number 2; 24' 1" (#21 of 43)

Avery Island Oak number 2; 24′ 1″ (#21 of 43)

In some cases, oaks have been registered more than once, and by different owners, adding to the confusion between Dr. Stephens description of a tree’s location and the current landscape. Some oak names were familiar to a few locals and were not particularly difficult to find. Others required extensive research through libraries, the Internet, books and the kind assistance of many local librarians, chambers of commerce, sheriff’s deputies and Louisiana Garden Club members across the state.

Thomas Boyd Oak and state capital; 20' 6" (#38 of 43) tree fell down in Hurricane Gustave and has been removed.

Thomas Boyd Oak and state capital; 20′ 6″ (#38 of 43) the tree fell down in Hurricane Gustave and has been removed.

I confirmed that in just 74 years four of the inductees had died including the top three. I suspected that six more were deceased possibly due to urban growth and development (a total of 14%). Of the original 43, I found nineteen oaks (45%) alive and well. I was unable to locate or accurately confirm the identity of fourteen more (but suspect they are still alive).

Since 2008 when I wrote the American Forests article, I continued my search for the rest of the 43 whenever I’m photographing in an area where they were located.  At some point soon, I will publish an update that will include any other of the original inductees I have been able to accurately identify and document.

Etienne de Boré Oak (Tree of Life)

Audubon Park – New Orleans, Louisiana

Etienne de Boré oak - Audubon Park, New Orleans

Etienne de Boré oak – Audubon Park, New Orleans

In New Orleans, and especially the neighborhoods surrounding Audubon Park, this oak has been dubbed “The Tree of Life.” Its registered name with the Live Oak Society is the Etienne de Boré oak. The land on which Audubon Park is located was at one time part of de Boré’s extensive sugarcane plantation.

Registration & MeasurementsAt just under 35 feet in circumference today, this oak was number 13 on Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens’ list of 43 original inductee trees into the Live Oak Society and is also in the top 100 oldest surviving oaks on the Society’s member list.  Its girth when it was registered (as #21) was 23 feet, 1 inch. The oak is located in Audubon Park on the down-river side of the Audubon Zoo, right over the fence from the giraffe habitat. It’s an enormous tree with a broad gnarly base of roots and a crown of limbs more than 160 feet wide.


The Live Oak Society estimates that any oak with a girth of 17 feet in circumference (measured at 4 feet off the ground) is probably 100 years of age or older. This is a rough system of estimation developed by the Society’s founder, Dr. Stephens, which is fairly accurate, though soil, rain, and other habitat conditions can affect a tree’s long-term growth.  A live oak with a girth of more than 30 feet could be 300 years of age or more.  The ages of many of the Society’s oldest and largest trees are only rough guesses, and there’s been much-heated discussion among amateur arborists and other tree-folk over this issue.

Etienne de Bore' Oak

Etienne de Bore’ Oak


Jean Etienne de Boré is significant in history as the first French planter in Louisiana to successfully granulate sugarcane into sugar on a large scale, helping to make sugarcane the main crop over indigo and tobacco in antebellum Louisiana. He originally cultivated indigo (a highly valued crop and popular dye); but after several years of drought and insect damage, de Boré decide to gamble the last of his and his wife’s personal funds on growing sugarcane. In 1794, he secured a variety of Cuban sugarcane from Don Antonio Mendez (a Cuban of Spanish descent) who had successfully granulated a small amount of sugar in 1791 (a few barrels or hogsheads – approx. 1000 pounds per barrel) at Magnolia plantation in Saint Bernard Parish, downriver from New Orleans.  With the help of Mendez and a Cuban by the name of Antoine Morin who had experience with the sugar granulation process, de Boré succeeded in producing a crop of sugar on his plantation that he sold for $12,000 (quoted from a Times-Picayune story from January 13, 1895).

De Boré was also the first mayor of New Orleans, appointed to the position by Governor William C.C. Claiborne in 1803, the same year Louisiana was transferred from Spain to France.  He resigned in 1804 after New Orleans became an American colony through the Louisiana Purchase.


Couple getting married under the limbs of the Etienne de Bore’ oak.

Audubon Park is home to several other member trees of the Live Oak Society. The George and Martha Washington oaks were among the original 43 inductee oaks in the Society along with the de Boré oak. George has passed on but Martha is still alive, in the rhino habitat of the Zoo. There are three other unnamed oaks spread across the Park’s grounds that are elder Society members.

Remains of Martha Washington Oak in Audubon's Rhino habitat

Remains of Martha Washington Oak in Audubon’s Rhino habitat

St. John Cathedral Oak (Cathedral Oak)

Lafayette, Louisiana

Cathedral Oak pano study 12_8x16

St. John Cathedral Oak – #33 of the original 43 Live Oak Society member trees

The St. John Cathedral Oak is located in Lafayette, Louisiana, on the grounds of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.  It is currently the second Vice President and a founding member of the Live Oak Society, an organization whose members are all live oaks, with the exception of one human, who serves as “Chairman” and maintains the roster of past, present, and future tree members, as they are registered.  Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens, first President of Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) proposed in a 1934 article titled, “I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing[1] that a society of the largest and oldest live oaks (Quercus virginiana) in Louisiana be created to identify and protect these trees for future generations to enjoy.  It was Dr. Stephens’ vision that the association’s members would be oaks whose size and age made them cultural and natural resources worth recognition and preservation.

Cathedral oak_3629

St. John Cathedral Oak – girth of 29′ 6″ as of May 2015

Registration & Measurements:  Dr. Stephens’ article listed 43 live oaks that he proposed for charter membership in the order of their size (girth or circumference measured at four feet from the ground), beginning with the largest, the Locke Breaux Oak (now deceased), at 35 feet in girth.  The large oak on the grounds of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist was well-known to Dr. Stephens, and he listed it as the 33rd largest tree of his acquaintance:

“Thirty-three, Cathedral Oak, Lafayette, 19 feet (measured for State Superintendent Francis G. Blair, of Illinois, who published some account of it in his annual Arbor and Bird Days book for 1929).”[1]

Cathedral Oak_3642-Pano

Cathedral Oak, view from northeast side, beneath limbs

The Cathedral Oak is also commonly known today as the St. John Cathedral Oak.  It is #65 in the Live Oak Society records.  A second measurement of 26 feet, 7 inches was entered in the Society’s records in 2002 and was used to determine the oak’s place among the Live Oak Society’s list of “Top 100” trees from 2003. Additional measurements have been recorded in recent years, as the interest in documenting and measuring large trees, and live oaks, in particular, has increased.  The cathedral’s website reports a measurement made on May 30, 2008, by Jim Foret, a local arborist, and teacher at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette:

“The near five-century-old tree measures 9 feet in diameter, with a circumference of 28 feet 8 inches; it stands approximately 126 high with a spread of 210 feet across.”

Note: Jim Foret and I re-measured the Cathedral Oak on Saturday, May 30, 2015, and it’s now 29′ 6″ in circumference.  The two photos above were made that day.

Cathedral Oak study 1

Cathedral Oak – view from the northwest side

By any account, this is a massive and sprawling tree, with an unusual twisting and ropy trunk. It is also difficult to photograph and retain a sense of its size and shape because of the long, low branches that jut sharply from the trunk at several angles.

Age & History:  The measurements of older live oaks, as well as other trees species, are of interest to arborists, scientists, and conservationists, as they study rates and conditions of growth. Most methods of age estimation rely on various formulas that translate the tree’s girth or diameter into years to avoid using more invasive techniques, such as coring, that may cause the trees harm. The Live Oak Society’s initial criteria for membership was based on an oak having a girth of at least 17 feet, which Dr. Stephen’s estimated would place the tree’s age at approximately 100+ years (today, the Society says that 16 feet of girth qualifies an oak as a centenarian tree).  Dr. Stephens recognized, however, that varying habitats produced different growth rates and tree sizes:

“Therefore we may infer that close-grown live oaks may be several hundred years old, and still much smaller in girth than these we have listed.  So, there should be a by-law for this Live Oak Association, admitting members of smaller girth than 17 feet, when sufficient evidence appears for the age of not less than a hundred years.”[1]

Cathedral Oak study 10

Cathedral Oak, view from the northeast side toward the cathedral

Since 1934, the Live Oak Society has added a “junior league” category and allows for the registration of live oaks with a minimum of 8 feet in girth. This has resulted in a significant increase in the Society’s membership, which now includes more than 8700 live oaks in 14 states (as of April 2019).

The title of “centenarian” is still reserved to those trees estimated to be at least 100 years old.  It is interesting to note that in 1934, at 19 feet, the St. John Cathedral Oak would have been approximately 150 years old, using Dr. Stephens’ method of age estimation, though the church estimates the tree’s age as much older. The existence of this ancient oak in 1821 and its prominent size is believed to have been a primary reason for the selection of the site on which the first Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist was built:

“Many speculate that our first pastor (Michel Bernard Barriere) selected the specific plot of land for the church parish due to the grand oak tree, which would have been 275 years old at that time (1821).”[2]

Cathedral Oak IR 4

Cathedral Oak, infrared study, view from the west side

The information above illustrates how difficult it can be to arrive at an accurate age estimate for old oaks. If the Cathedral oak was 275 years old in 1821, then it would have been almost 400 years in 1934 instead of the 150-year estimate that Dr. Stephens’ girth measurement of 19 feet might suggest. The average oak’s growth rate is estimated to be most rapid during the first 75 to 100 years, slower during the next 75 to 100, and then even slower after that point. The girth growth logically would slow as the tree matures and its system extends to support multiple branches (some that are nearly as large as the trunk itself) and wide canopy spreads. The difference in girth noted between 1934 and 2002 in the Cathedral oak could also be a result of the variations in girth that can occur when one measures 6 inches higher or lower up or down the tree’s trunk. Many older oaks have massive limbs or root balls within this 4 to 4.5-foot range that adds significantly to its girth. The Live Oak Society President, the Seven Sisters Oak is estimated to be around 1200 years of age. The Angel Oak near Charleston, South Carolina is estimated to be between 500 and 1500 years old (500 years is a more realistic guess).

Cathedral Oak IR 5

Cathedral Oak, infrared study, view from the southwest side

Future Generations: Dr. Stephens made provision for future generations of live oaks to be grown from the hardy stock of the Live Oak Society’s registered trees. The Society’s original by-laws stated that “annual dues” of 25 acorns be collected from each oak member. These were to be planted on the Southwestern Institute farm (near Lafayette).  Although the practice has since been discontinued, many of the acorns planted as a result of his efforts are now mature oaks today, many growing on the grounds of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The St. John Cathedral Oak, and two other venerable members of the Live Oak Society have also donated their acorns to national reforestation efforts, as noted by Ethelyn Orso, in her informative book, Louisiana Live Oak Lore:

“Acorns from famous and historic Louisiana live oaks were collected in 1990 to be used in a reforestation program sponsored by the American Forestry Association.  Trees chosen for the project included the Seven Sisters Oak, the Oak Alley Plantation trees, and the St. John Cathedral Oak.  The acorns were planted and the resulting seedlings were transported to other states to create America’s Historic Forests.  Each new forest will be at least 1,000 acres and will include more than 500,000 trees. Such a project could also be undertaken in parts of Louisiana where great stands of live oaks once stood.”[3]

[1] Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens, President, Southwestern Louisiana Institute, “I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing”, Louisiana Conservation Review Vol. IV, No. 2 (April 1934), 16-23.

[2] [3] Ethelyn G. Orso,  Louisiana Live Oak Lore (Lafayette, Louisiana: The Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1992), 20.

Seven Sisters Oak (Doby’s Seven Sisters)

Seven Sisters color 4_7x13

Seven Sisters Oak, current President of the Live Oak Society and the American Forestry Association’s National “Big Tree Champion” for the species Quercus virginiana.

The Seven Sisters Oak resides in Lewisburg, LA (a small neighborhood community in Mandeville) at a private residence.  The historic and beautiful live oak is the President of the Live Oak Society, a unique organization whose members are all trees, with the exception of the Secretary or Chairman (currently is Coleen Perilloux Landry), who registers live oaks that are submitted for new membership and maintains the 75-year-old roster.  The Seven Sisters Oak was elected in 1968 after the first President died (The Locke Breaux Oak), and is the current President and largest tree in the Society.

Registration & Measurements:  Originally registered as Doby’s Seven Sisters (#200), the live oak’s first sponsors were the Doby family, who then owned the property.  The name was changed and the tree re-registered as the Seven Sisters Oak (#697).  When the live oak was first registered as Doby’s Seven Sisters, the girth was recorded at 36 feet, 1 inch.  It is an enormous tree, measuring approximately 55 feet high, with a limb spread of more than 130 feet.  In 1986, its circumference was measured at 37 feet, 6 inches; in 2003, the circumference was recorded at 38 feet; and a more recent measurement placed the girth at 39 feet 11 inches.  This magnificent tree is a worthy successor to the Locke Breaux Oak, the first President of the Live Oak Society, which died in 1966-68 due to air and groundwater pollution along the Mississippi River. To view vintage photographs of the Locke Breaux Oak go to the blog post “Revisiting the Lock Breaux Oak.”

Seven Sisters color 1_7x13 copy

Seven Sisters Oak, north view toward house, 2016

Titles:  For years, the eligibility of the Seven Sisters Oak as a Live Oak Society member and the principal officer was disputed because it was believed to be several separate trees growing together.  In 1976, after inspection by federal foresters, the tree was proved to have a single root system; and its status as President was accepted without further contest, by virtue of its girth (the greatest measurement of all live oaks then registered with the Society). The confirmation of the single trunk system also granted the Seven Sisters Oak the undisputed title of National Champion Live Oak in the American Forestry Association’s National Register of Big Trees.

Seven Sisters color 4_7x13 copy

Seven Sisters Oak, color study, 2016

History:  The origin of the name, Seven Sisters, is lost in the obscurity of time and memory.  One current story is that the name describes seven main trunks that comprise the single tree.  Yet, the oak actually has more than seven trunks that split from its immense base in two clusters.  Another speculation is that the name is a translation of an older Choctaw Indian name that’s now forgotten.  The Choctaws were residents of this area for many years before white men arrived and a tree of this size would possibly have been well known and named by them.

7 Sisters Pano IR 1

Seven Sisters Oak, infrared black-and-white study, 2016

Many Choctaws of the Lewisburg/Mandeville area were converted to Christianity by Father Adrein-Emmanuel Rouquette who preached the Christian gospel to the Indians under the limbs of live oaks, quite probably under this tree.  Father Rouquette was a French Creole from New Orleans, educated in Kentucky and Paris, France.  He so loved the woods near his childhood home along Bayou St. John in New Orleans that after completing his formal education, he returned not to New Orleans, but to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and the company of the trees.  There, preaching under the oaks, he felt more plainly God’s touch on the land and saw more clearly the light of His gospel reflected in the eyes and hearts of his congregation.


Seven Sisters Oak, black-and-white study circa 1990

Sept. 2010 update:  According to Ms. Coleen Perilloux Landry, the Live Oak Society records reflect that “The Seven Sisters Oak was given its name because the owner at the time was one of seven sisters. It was Mrs. Doby who gave the oak its current name. When the tree was designated President of the Live Oak Society, the governor of Louisiana was present at the special event. The Marine Band played and a ballet troupe danced around its roots. Wooden doubloons with the tree’s name imprinted on it were given to everyone present.”

Locke Breaux Oak

Taft, Louisiana – St. Charles Parish

Locke Breaux Oak, first President

Locke Breaux Oak, first President of the Live Oak Society

The Locke Breaux Oak in Taft, Louisiana, was the first President and a founding member of the Live Oak Society, a unique organization whose members are all live oaks (Quercus virginiana).  The society operates under the auspices of the Louisiana Garden Club Federation, Inc. today; and the tree association includes only one human, the acting Secretary (currently Coleen Perilloux Landry, “Chairman”), who maintains the roster of past, present, and future tree members, as they are registered.


The Locke Breaux Oak was a beautiful giant, named after the Locke and Breaux families, descendents of English philosopher, John Locke.  Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens, founder of the Live Oak Society, in an article in the Louisiana Conservation Review (April 1934), begins his list of 43 live oaks proposed for membership in a tree “Association” with a description of the Locke Breaux Oak:

“First on the list, and most outstanding timber of the highest rank in the Association, is the Locke Breaux Live Oak, on the right bank of the Mississippi River, four miles above Hahnville in St. Charles Parish…This is the largest live oak I ever saw.  Its girth four feet above the ground is 35 feet; its height about 75 feet; its spread 166 feet, when I measured it on January 22, 1932, in company with my friend, its owner, the late Samuel Locke Breaux of New Orleans.”

The age of the Locke Breaux Oak has been estimated by various sources.  Ethelyn G. Orso’s Louisiana Live Oak Lore (published by  The Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette, Louisiana) indicates that:

“According to legend, in 1682 LaSalle and his band of explorers knelt beneath it to give thanks for their safe journey down the Mississippi River.  The Locke Breaux Oak was estimated to be between 300 and 400 years old.”

A description of the Locke Breaux Oak is also found on the reverse of a postcard printed with a color image of the tree (photo by Hubert A. Lowman), which we purchased, with many thanks, from Billy’s Postcards).

Description of the Locke Breaux Oak

Postcard of the Locke Breaux Oak - description on reverse

Beneath the bold title, the postcard states,

“This magnificent tree, the oldest live oak known, sprouted in 1657.”

and further describes the setting:

“A convenient road circles the tree and picnic facilities are provided by the Colonial Dairy, on whose property it grows.”

The Locke Breaux Oak is now deceased, its demise 1966-1968 due to air and ground water pollution, testimony to the need for more rigorous means of protection for other oaks of environmental, cultural, historic and aesthetic significance.  The live oak’s original sponsor, Colonial Dairy Farm, was sold to a chemical company, one of many that began to flourish in the parish after the discovery of oil within the region, which resulted in a shift from agriculture to industry.  The former Live Oak Society president remains #1 in the roster; and its impact on the landscape and contribution to history are known today, by those who were never privileged to view it in person, thanks to the individuals and organizations that recognized its grandeur and significance, and paused to record it, as well as to preserve the records.

The second and current President of the Live Oak Society, the Seven Sisters Oak in Lewisburg, LA (near Mandeville), was elected in 1968.  The Seven Sisters Oak was originally known as Doby’s Seven Sisters The name was changed and the oak re-registered as the Seven Sisters Oak.  A magnificent and worthy successor, the live oak’s girth measured 36′ 1″ at registration and was recorded as 38′ in 2002 on the “Society’s Top 100” list.