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Southern Live Oaks

Where I live in northwest New Mexico, I don't see southern live oak trees. They grow in southern states and have their own special look. Their trunks lounge along the ground, then lift into the air, creating a maze of designs. Some are draped with moss.


Thanks to the April/May 2023 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, I learned some interesting things about these trees whose artistic limbs beckon children to climb them.


According to the article written by Shannon Sims, the southern live oaks are very strong. When hurricanes uproot some trees, people have safely ridden out the storms by clinging to oak limbs. The trees' deep roots hold fast to the ground.


Not only are the trees strong, but they can live a very long time. Some of them are more than a thousand years old. They are also a food source. The trees' acorns have been ground into meal as far back as during pre-Columbian America.


The U.S. Navy has used southern live oaks to build ship hulls because the wood is so sturdy. Way back in 1797, the Navy launched the USS Constitution. It's still afloat today. During the War of 1812, it earned the nickname "Old Ironsides" because its hull withstood attacks from British cannons.


The trees are especially good at absorbing carbon, which helps to combat climate change. The more carbon that trees can absorb, the less stays in the atmosphere. That helps to keep the earth from warming quite so fast.


The Louisiana Garden Club Federation has an organization called the Live Oak Society. There is only one human member. Her name is Coleen Perilloux Landry. She helps to protect the trees from being cut down when just a trim would be enough to satisfy the needs of, for example, utility companies. The president of the society is a 1,200-year-old oak with a trunk more than ten feet around.


You can see southern live oaks in other states too, among them Virginia, Texas, Arizona and South Carolina. One of the most famous live oaks is called Angel Oak. It's on Johns Island in South Carolina and is estimated to be more than 400 years old.


Southern live oaks provide shelter for many interesting woodland creatures. Two of them are the barking tree frog and the ferruginous pygmy owl. The owls like to build nests in holes that woodpeckers left in the trees. Barking tree frogs have fingers and toes that create a lot of suction, so they can jump around in the trees like acrobats.

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Bent Coconut Palm

Bent coconut palm grows upright

Wind, rain, and other weather related events can be challenging for trees. After some devastating floods and hurricanes or tornadoes, we may have seen fallen trees, their roots severed from the ground. Television cameras capture pictures of the aftermath of disasters in other areas. It's hard to fathom how life changing those events can be unless you've lived through one or more of them.


In front of the beach house where my son and I stayed for eight days near Pahoa, Hawaii stood a coconut palm that looked like it might once have been blown over in a strong wind. But this palm didn't lose its attachment to the ground. Its roots tenaciously gripped the earth. Though its trunk grew sideways for a while, eventually the trunk grew tall again. This palm had several coconuts in it, a sign that it's now a healthy tree.


The owners ringed the palm with lava rocks, so abundant in that area. It's apparent they value and nurture the tree.


Like much of Hawaii, that area has seen strong winds and many lava flows from volcanic eruptions. In 2018, an eruption from the Kilauea Volcano brought lava flows precariously close to the town of Pahoa and wiped out some nearby communities.


When devastating natural disasters occur, lives can be forever altered. Communities, people, animals, trees and other plants that survive usually find a way to move forward in spite of the loss.


That's what happened in the Pahoa area. After the eruption, people got together and figured out what their neighbors needed. They found a way to provide those things. They gathered the items in buildings where people who had lost everything could restock and spend time with people who cared.


Many times when I stepped out of the lovely beach house that felt like home to us for a short time, I walked around the coconut palm and marveled at how well it adapted to whatever knocked it flat years before. It looked so healthy and productive.


It's one of many signs of hope around us that even in tough times it's possible to survive and, even, to thrive, especially when we are surrounded by people who care.

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