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…

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.

More River Road Oak Allées – Whitney Plantation

Whitney_allee_5165-2Curtained behind a tall fence and a border of other trees and shrubs grows the short but dramatic allee of six oaks at Whitney Plantation in Wallace, LA, directly upriver from Evergreen Plantation.  The allee of oaks is not particularly old, possibly 60 to 70 years, but the trees are beautiful and create a rich green canopy between the manor house and River Road. The trees were reportedly planted in the 1950s, around the same time as Evergreen Plantation’s farm road allee.  

Whitney Plantation oak allee, view from house toward river

The entire Whitney Plantation complex is a museum – the only museum in Louisiana where the focus is entirely on the lives of enslaved people across Louisiana and the South and the conditions in which they lived and died.  During your visit to the inside displays and the self-guided tour (under the pandemic restrictions), you will learn about the history of slavery—from the “middle passage” (the forced voyage of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to north and south America) to southern plantations. The museum is educational and informative, providing visitors with a raw, unfiltered picture of the horrific experience of slavery.  It is not a tour for the faint of heart or for those who do not wish to face the truth of horrors of the slave experience.  

The complex of buildings on the property includes at least a dozen historic structures dating back to the late 1700s as well as the historic Antioch Baptist Church (below).

Antioch Baptist Church

Moved from Paulina on the east bank of the Mississippi River after being replaced by a newer structure, the church building was erected in 1870 by the Anti-Yoke Society. It was the only African-American church in the immediate area, and was built by former slaves of several River Road plantations. 

Visitors will also interact with a variety of sculptural and memorial displays scattered around the plantation grounds, beginning with a group of contemporary clay sculptures by Woodrow Nash of slave children that visitors find inside the Antioch church where the tour begins.

Woodrow Nash sculptures of two salve boys

These haunting life-size children turn up in various settings around the site. Their effect is make the visitor view the entire setting from a different perspective, possibly through the eyes of slave children. Other displays and memorials include the “Midlow Wall,” a series of angled granite walls engraved with the names of enslaved individuals, much like the famous Vietnam wall in Washington DC.

Midlow Alley Memorial

Other than me, I’d guess that no one visits Whitney Plantation just to see its allée of live oaks. But, since the focus of my photography as primarily been to document the historic oaks of Louisiana and the human stories connected with them, this allee is worth seeing and appreciating. And the entire Whitney Tour will be an enlightening and contrasting experience to both tourists and locals.   

Louisiana’s Oldest Oaks – My top 23

Seven Sisters Oak, Mandeville, LA

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.

Randall Oak, New Roads, LA

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 The
  6. Martin Tree 34′ – Gonzales; (named for Miss Delba Martin) on private property The
  7. 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

Edna Szymoniak Oak, 35′-6″; Hammond, LA

The Oldest Oak Allées in Louisiana

In France, an allée refers to a road, or path, flanked by parallel rows of trees, shrubs, statues, or stones. In European landscape design, it is an ancient concept. Visually and emotionally, the allée emphasizes a traveler’s arrival at a specific locale. It indicates a formal approach to a notable place or structure (I use the French term allée instead of alley throughout this blog post).

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Oak Alley Plantation Oaks, view from 2nd floor veranda, toward levee

The allée arrived in Louisiana by way of European immigrants who settled here in the late 1700s and 1800s. In time, German, Creole French, and American planters began to accumulate vast fortunes, dependent on slave labor to cultivate crops of indigo, sugarcane, cotton, and tobacco. Intent on publicizing their wealth to their neighbors, these planter-barons would often landscape the grounds around their opulent plantation homes, planting allées and gardens mimicking formal gardens and parks of Paris, Lyon, and Marseille.

In Louisiana, an allée of magnificent native live oaks (Quercus virginiana) was regarded as a grand display of affluence as well as a sign of older, more established wealth, since the oaks could take decades to mature. On a practical level, an allée of oaks provided shelter and shade for a home. Along the Mississippi River, an allée of trees helped direct cooling breezes toward a plantation house, to reduce the intense heat of Louisiana’s summers.

In my 30+ years of travel across Louisiana in search of historic live oaks, I have photographed 16 mature allées that are still intact. Some are in obvious decline and others are even more magnificent now, in their full maturity.  The three oldest of these allées can be dated to the late 1700s and early 1800s. They include:

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De la Ronde (Packenham) Oak Allée, Chalmette

1) The De la Ronde Oaks (also known as the Versailles Allée of Oaks), were planted in 1783 on the 21st birthday of Pierre Denis De la Ronde in what is today the town of Chalmette. The allée of oaks (about 40 oaks remain) is often misidentified as the Packenham Oaks, after the ill-fated British General Packenham who led British forces and died at the Battle of New Orleans. The allée stretched between the De la Ronde plantation manor (called “Versaille” because of its extraordinary size and beauty for the time) and the Mississippi River. The plantation was one of several plantations that were the site of the Battle of New Orleans in Dec. 1814 and early January 1815.

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Audubon Oak Allée, Zoo side of Magazine Street, New Orleans

2) The Audubon Oak Allée (also called the Foucher Allée) was planted by Etienne de Boré, sometime between 1776 and 1800. Etienne and his wife, Marie Marguerite, settled on a plot of land about 5 miles upriver from New Orleans where they began planting indigo around 1776 or 1777 (he changed to growing sugarcane around 1795). The original de Boré allée of oaks, according to historic maps, was much longer than the 28 oaks remaining today. It may have stretched as far as Naiad Street (the current St. Charles Avenue), but part of the land was cleared of its stately live oaks to make way for the buildings housing the Cotton Centennial Exposition of 1884.

According to Diane Weber, grounds director for Audubon Zoo and Park, the de Boré plantation house would have been located where the sea lion pool is now in Audubon Zoo, and the oak allée would have led to it. The George Washington and Martha Washington oaks would have framed the view of the home. Although the George Washington Oak is deceased, the Martha Washington Oak still survives in the rhino habitat area at the zoo.

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Allée of oaks at Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie, LA

3) The allée of 28 live oaks at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie was supposedly planted beginning in 1836 during the construction of the manor house (according to the most current research). Oak Alley Foundation researchers believe that the allée was created by moving mature live oaks beginning with the first three pairs of oaks in front of the plantation house. However, this explanation doesn’t account for some of the larger trees growing further from the house in each row of trees. At least three of the oaks are between 28 ft. and 30 ft. in girth, which would indicate a much older oak (my note).

The classic view of its Greek Revival mansion, framed by the quarter-mile-long tunnel of live oak limbs, is so well-known that it has become an “icon,” a symbol. No other allée that I’ve found in Louisiana is planted with such careful attention to the spacing and direction of its trees.  The north-south alignment of oaks seems planned to produce dramatic side-lighting both early and late in the day. This elaborate interplay between light and shadow is, in itself, a work of art.