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My Favorite Southern Trees
I’m not just an unabashed tree hugger, I’m a tree kisser. When the mood strikes me, I’ll wrap my arms around a big white oak or sassafras or tulip poplar and plant a big wet one right on the scratchy bark.
We Southern tree lovers are especially fortunate. Of 688 tree species native to the United States, one-third — 235 species — occur in the South, more than in all of Europe. And that number doesn’t include introduced and naturalized species.
Many of our native trees occur exclusively in the South or reach their greatest prominence — and grandest forms — here. Some, like the magnolia, are Southern icons. I’m sometimes asked what are my favorite Southern trees, especially those that define the South or give it a sense of place. My top 10 include:
10) Yaupon holly, or cassina, which grows profusely in the South’s coastal areas and becomes loaded with bright red berries and shiny green leaves in winter. On John’s Island, a sea island near Charleston where I grew up, we hauled yaupon boughs from the woods to decorate our homes at Christmas. I preferred gathering yaupon because its leaves weren’t as thorny as American holly’s. I still love walking through a Southern maritime forest in winter and seeing yaupon’s striking red berries and leaves amidst all the drabness.
Yaupon is known for a distinctive trait — its leaves contain copious amounts of caffeine, the only native North American plant that harbors the substance. Coastal Indians boiled yaupon leaves to make a potent brew called “black drink.” Indian men, according to early Spanish explorer accounts, gathered at morning to discuss tribal business and sip black drink. Consumed in large amounts, yaupon tea induced vomiting. Hence, the plant’s scientific name, Ilex vomitoria. Before going into battle or on a hunt, the males of some tribes drank black drink to wrench their guts out and purge their bodies of evil spirits.
We read about yaupon in our history books. An uncle once told me he made a tea from yaupon and drank it to see what would happen. He said he “puked my guts out for two days.”
9) Chickasaw plum (Prunus augustifolia), another small tree confined mostly to the South’s coastal plain and piedmont. We simply called it “wild plum.“
Dense plum thickets grow wild in old fields, hedgerows, roadsides and other sunny spots of the South. In early spring, even before their leaves come out, the diminutive trees are festooned with small white flowers that become tiny plums, either red or yellow, in summer.
The little plums are some of the sweetest, tastiest fruit I’ve ever eaten. As a boy, I crawled through plum thickets and picked the low-hanging fruits, popping them in in my mouth as I crept along. Sometimes, I picked a bucketful for my momma, who made a wonderful wild plum jelly.
I usually had the plum thickets to myself — most of my buddies dared not go in them because they were the reputed haunts of fierce rattlesnakes. The lure of the tasty little plums overcame my fear of snakes.
8) Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera), a shrub-like tree that also grows in thickets in the South’s coastal plain and, occasionally, in the piedmont. I also crawled through myrtle thickets, but not for the fruit. In my mind, myrtle thickets were the closest thing to a dark, foreboding jungle, like the ones I saw in the movies or read about in my Daddy’s National Geographic magazines.
Where I grew up, many folks considered the wax myrtle a trash tree because it seemed always to spring up where not wanted. Others, like myself, found unique beauty in its open natural shape and shiny evergreen leaves that give off a sweet aroma. Nevertheless, I was amazed to learn later in life that nurseries actually sell the tree for landscaping purposes. The Georgia Native Plant Society even selected wax myrtle as its “Plant of the Year” in 2002.
Bird lovers covet the myrtle because its bluish berries nourish well over thirty-five bird species. Sea island Gullah folk, many of whom were my neighbors growing up, made fragrant candles from the waxy berries. We crushed the leaves and rubbed them on our arms to ward off vicious biting deer flies.
7) Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), which, despite its name, is not really a cedar. It’s a member of the juniper family. Its range is not just the South — it occurs all along the Eastern seaboard as far north as Canada. But, in my mind, it’s one of those trees that kindles fond memories for many a Southerner because, for many of us, Eastern red cedars served as our Christmas tree.
When I was a young boy, my older brothers took me with them when they poled our old family bateau across the salt marsh to a nearby hammock, or marsh island, to chop down a cedar for Christmas. Eastern red cedars covered the little island because its soil was sweetened by old limey oyster and clam shells. To this day, every time I smell an Eastern red cedar, I recall those happy holidays.
We also used the fragrant, rot-resistant cedar wood to make fence posts, chests and cabinets. It also was good for pencils. The Eagle Pencil Co. in 1908 bought Little St. Simons Island, a Georgia barrier isle, for its abundant red cedars. Shiploads of cedars were cut and dispatched to the pencil factory. The wood of many of them, however, was found to be too stressed from wind and salt spray, unsuitable for pencil-making.
6) Palmetto (Sabal palmetto), one of the South’s truly great trees, although it lives mostly along the coast. In my mind, the palmetto is the most beautiful of all the world’s palm species. Few things remind me more of home — and of our subtropical climate — than a stately palmetto with its arrow-straight trunk. One of the sounds I identified with most in childhood was palmetto fronds giving off an eerie rustle when they were gently billowed by a breeze off the river.
The palmetto is South Carolina’s state tree, as anyone who has seen the state’s flag would surmise. The tree is prominently pictured on the flag, symbolic of the Revolutionary War fort built of palmetto logs in 1776 on Sullivan’s Island near Charleston. The palmetto logs easily repulsed British cannonballs, which discouraged the attacking British fleet and caused them to call off the attack.
Florida, too, claims the palmetto as its state tree. A palmetto also graces its state flag, but you have to look hard to find the tree‘s image.
Palmetto fronds fall off the tree as it ages, leaving the trunk with a curious, crisscross pattern, like a thatched skirt or a woven basket. Many of us boys growing up on the coast spent hours building little huts from the fronds, like coastal Indians used to do.
The palmetto holds another significance for me — the yearbook of my alma mater, St. John’s High School on John’s Island, was called “The Palmetto.” When I graduated in 1962, we seniors were the first ones to get our hands on the new yearbook. A palmetto was supposed to grace its cover, but when we picked up our copies, we immediately noticed that the tree on the cover had a curved trunk and a distinct cluster of coconuts dangling from its canopy. The yearbook publisher obviously didn’t know the difference between palmetto and coconut. Outraged, we demanded that the publisher take back the yearbooks and replace the coconut tree with a palmetto. The publisher complied.
5) Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum), or Southern cypress, a classic tree of the Deep South, emblematic of the vast swamps that give the region an enduring identity. Louisiana made the bald cypress its official tree, which is not surprising since the Bayou State is half swampland, prime habitat for the tree. In Florida, before the early Spanish explorers arrived, Calusa Indians carved hollow trunks of cypress to make canoes that floated them toward Cuba.
Naturalist William Bartram, who explored Florida’s St. John’s River in the late 1700s, described cypress trees as “majestic.” In his journal, he wrote admiringly of their stature. “What adds to the magnificence of their appearance,” he wrote, “Is the streamers of long moss that hang from the lofty limbs and float in the winds.”
My spirit also soars when I see 90-foot-tall bald cypresses standing ramrod straight in inky black swamp water, their massive trunk bottoms flared out in huge buttresses and their high, moss-festooned canopies shaped in conical splendor. It’s what draws me to the magnificent, cypress-filled wetlands — the Okefenokee in Georgia, Dismal in Virginia, Congaree in South Carolina and Corkscrew in Florida.
Some people regard cypress swamps as dark, shadowy and mysterious, metaphors for moral decadence, sloughs of despond. But not me. I find serenity and other-worldly beauty in the wetlands — places redolent of fertile earth, rich in bird and animal life.
Judging from their many references to cypresses in their novels and short stories, many great Southern writers — Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren and others — also found beauty, symbolism and a sense of place in the tree.
Wrote Eudora Welty in her book “Delta Wedding:” “Moss from the cypresses hung deep overhead now, and down by the water vines like pediments and arches reached from one tree to the next … the cypress trunks four feet thick in the water’s edge stood opened like doors of tents in Biblical engravings.”
4) Dogwood (Cornus florida), a beautiful and quaint reminder of the Old South — and the New South as well. With its gorgeous, bridal-white blossoms in early spring, the dogwood grows wild all over the eastern United States, but Southerners regard it as their very own. Towns and cities all over the South — Atlanta perhaps being the most prominent — celebrate the beauty of spring with their dogwood festivals. So what if the tree grows wild all the way to Canada? The dogwood is our tree.
In spring, the South’s woods and roadsides and yards are so dazzling white with dogwood blossoms that the landscapes look as if a blizzard had swept through them. When the Deep South’s dogwoods bloom amid a yardful of blooming azaleas, I can’t imagine a more glorious scene.
The dogwood is Virginia‘s official state tree. Virginians say they made it such “to foster a feeling of pride in our state and to stimulate an interest in the history and traditions of the Commonwealth.” A twelfth generation Virginian once told me that no other tree says Virginia better than the dogwood. But I’ve heard folks in South Carolina and Georgia and Alabama say the same thing about the dogwood’s significance in their states.
3) Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandflora), which would make anybody’s list of the South’s greatest trees. The magnolia literally screams Southern. Think magnolia and the romantic South springs to mind — and most likely the image of a Southern woman. The magnolia is regarded as a symbol of Southern women — soft and delicate, yet, at the same time, strong and enduring. No wonder “Steel Magnolias” was the title of the movie about a close-knit group of strong Southern women living in a Louisiana town.
The magnolia’s large, beautiful white flower also was one of the symbols of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. It is now the official state flower of Louisiana and Mississippi. The tree is Mississippi’s state tree as well. No surprise, then, that Mississippi bills itself as the Magnolia State.
Few college campuses in the South are without their Southern magnolias, whose flowers cast a delightful lemony fragrance all around. When I smell a magnolia, I recall sitting in a University of South Carolina classroom in late May, the sweet-smelling magnolias blooming just outside an open window, and knowing that the start of summer vacation was only a few days away — but that final exams must be endured before I left.
Like nearly everyone else I knew on John’s Island, we had a huge, unpruned Southern magnolia in our yard. Though I was too awkward to be an agile tree-climber, like most of my buddies, ascending to the top of the magnolia was a cinch because of its many limbs spaced close together.
2) Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), once the single most dominant tree of the South’s coastal plain and much of its piedmont. A vast longleaf pine forest, with a groundcover of lush, waving-in-the-wind wiregrass, once stretched over the coastal plain from Virginia to Texas — some 60 million to 90 million acres. Great swaths of longleaf and wiregrass looked more like city parks than old-growth forests. More than 400 species of wildflowers, grasses, ferns, trees, shrubs and other so-called vascular plants could be found on a single acre of healthy longleaf forest, making it one of the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems.
By the early 1900s, however, most of the great forest was felled for timber and agriculture and to build towns and cities. Huge, clumsy rafts of longleaf pine logs were floated down Southern rivers, like the Altamaha, to seaports like Darien, Ga., where ships were loaded with the prized wood and transported to ports all over the world.
Now, where longleaf pines and wiregrass once stretched as far as the eye could see, monotonous pine plantations of faster-growing loblolly and slash pine — what some call biological deserts — cover the landscape. Only small remnants of the once-magnificent longleaf ecosystem remain.
Longleaf pine, though, is still a revered species. Alabama claims it as the state’s official tree.
Author and activist Janisse Ray, who lives in Baxley, Ga., where once stood a great longleaf forest, wrote so eloquently of the tree in her book “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood” that one would be hard put to top her beautiful descriptions. “In a longleaf forest,” she wrote, “miles of open forest fade into a brilliant southern sunset and reappear the next dawn as a battalion marching out of fog. The tip of each needle carries a single drop of silver. The trees are so well spaced that their limbs seldom touch and sunlight streams between and within them.”
For me, suffice it to say that a mature, healthy longleaf/wiregrass forest is one of the most beautiful forests I’ve ever seen in the entire world. In my opinion, the most perfect example of how a longleaf forest looked to early European explorers of the South, like Ponce de Leon, is a private 200-acre sward near Thomasville, Ga. It’s called the Wade Tract, and is managed by the Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee. In the tract, the wind sighing through the canopies of centuries-old longleaf is a most pleasing sound, unmistakable and unforgettable — like a “whistling kettle,” as Janisse Ray described it.
The longleaf’s balmy pine-scent, wafting on the wind, once lured well-heeled vacationers to the Thomasville area after the Civil War. Many came seeking relief from respiratory ailments like consumption, or tuberculosis. They believed that pine trees — especially longleafs — exuded a vapor that helped treat the maladies.
The vacationers noticed something else — that the splendid longleaf/wiregrass forests were prime habitat for the bobwhite quail, the South’s most highly prized game bird. Many wealthy Northern sportsmen bought longleaf forestland in the Red Hills region between Thomasville and Tallahassee and established luxurious quail hunting plantations. No one knew at the time, though, how valuable the plantations would become for longleaf preservation: By protecting their woods from mass-logging and development, the plantation owners unwittingly protected the finest examples of the South’s old-growth longleaf forests.
And my No. 1 favorite Southern tree, the live-oak (Quercus virginiana), whose girth and grace and beauty may be unmatched in the South. In my mind, nothing represents the strength of the South — and its haunting splendor — better than the live-oak. Sidney Lanier, Georgia’s most famous poet, starts out his best-known poem, “The Marshes of Glynn,” this way:
Glooms of the live-oaks,
beautiful-braided and woven
With intricate shades of the vines that
Chamber the forks of the multiform boughs, —
Emerald twilights, —
Virginal shy lights …
The whole poem, in fact, is replete with live-oaks as metaphors and symbols:
O braided dusks of the oak and woven shades of the vine,
While the riotous noon-day sun of the June-day long did shine
Ye held me fast in your heart and I held you fast in mine …
It was in the shade of a live-oak that Lanier, visiting in Brunswick, Ga., in the 1870s, pondered over the great salt marsh — “a world of marsh that borders a world of sea” — stretching before him. Lanier’s oak still stands in Brunswick in the median of U.S. Highway 17, just across from the city’s Marshes of Glynn Overlook Park. A historic marker tells visitors that “here [Lanier] received the inspiration which resulted in some of his finest poems.“
The live-oak is Georgia’s official state tree. Several Southern cities and towns are named for the species — Live Oak, Fla., and Live Oak, Texas, among them. Charleston, Savannah and Mobile no doubt would lose much of their grace and charm if they had no massive live-oaks, shrouded in Spanish moss, hanging over their streets or shading their parks and neighborhoods.
The-live oak was by far the dominant tree of the grand maritime forests that once covered coastal barrier islands — and still do in some coastal areas. A scene you’ll find nowhere else but in the Deep South is the ponderous limbs of a live-oak leaning like a green parasol over the edge of a salt marsh. “Affable live-oak, leaning low,” as Lanier described it.
Southerners are fiercely proud of their live-oaks. I have seen groups of Southerners from various states in heated arguments over whose state has the biggest, grandest and showiest live-oak. Of course, in my mind, the famed Angel Oak of John’s Island, a giant live-oak covering nearly an acre of ground, wins hands down. The Angel Oak is believed to be more than 1,600 years old. It was just down the road from my boyhood home. We would literally run barefoot over its massive limbs, several of which sunk to the ground. Generations of islanders carved their initials in the limbs, though we would dare not do such a thing now. One reason is that it is now protected within the confines of a Charleston city park, and you have to pay to see it.
After the Revolutionary War, the nation’s fleet of tall ships was built of live-oaks from the South’s coastal barrier islands. In my book, “Cumberland Island: Strong Women, Wild Horses,” I write: “Live-oak’s strength and resistance to rot and woodborers, as well as its naturally curved limbs, made it ideal for building tall ships — frigates, men-of-war, brigantines, packets, whalers, merchantmen. The dense wood doesn’t float when fresh. Some said it surpassed the teak of India as the best timber for the greatest variety of naval purposes. Cannonballs hitting live-oak planking zinged back into the water.”
In the 1700s, legions of loggers from up north — calling themselves “live-oakers” — came to the coastal islands of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to fell live-oaks by the thousands. The timber was sent to northern shipyards to build the ships. To this day, natives of several coastal islands — including us on John’s Island — debate over which island supplied the live-oak for one of the nation’s most famous sailing vessels, “Old Ironsides.”
When Hurricane Hugo pounded South Carolina’s coast in 1989, the powerful, howling winds broke off countless massive limbs from the big live-oaks on my family‘s land on John’s Island. In some cases, centuries-old live-oaks were uprooted. Seizing the opportunity, shipwrights from Mystic Seaport, Conn., which houses one of the nation’s grandest maritime museums replete with numerous historical sailing ships, drove their flatbed trucks to John’s Island and loaded them with Hugo-leveled live-oak. The timber was hauled back to Mystic and to other East Coast seaports and used to repair — and in some cases, rebuild — numerous old sailing ships. Later, when we visited Mystic, a giant live-oak log in its maritime park displayed a sign: “Live Oak from John’s Island.”
These, then, are my favorite Southern trees. Some would argue that the white oak and the tulip poplar also should be on the list, but those species also are just as prominent up north as they are in the South. Actually, I love all trees (except perhaps when they fall on people’s houses or crush people in their cars). As oft-quoted poet Joyce Kilmer wrote: “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.”