The Live Oaks at Ocracoke!

By Jane Malec EMGV

My husband and I along with our two golden retrievers made our first journey to the Outer Banks a few weeks ago.  We have been North Carolinians for 15 years now but never manage to get there.  Those of you that have explored the Outer Banks probably are familiar with some of this background information but many life long residents, I found, have never been to this part of of our state.

Ocracoke is a small unincorporated village near the end of Ocracoke Island which is the southern most island in the Outer Banks.  Its actually a CDP, census designated place,  but I don’t think many year rounders appreciate that definition. The 2010 census shows the population at 948 brave residents.  It sits out into the Pamlico Sound sort of like the knuckle of your index finger.  You don’t stumble upon Ocracoke on a “honey let’s take a drive” Sunday afternoon.  Its a commitment…just ask the afore mentioned golden retrievers, Layla and Max.  So for most of us that means a six to seven hour journey depending on which of the ferries you chose.

If you don’t fish or surf, the pace during the off season very is slow and relaxing.  Unless, of course, you are there during the Pirate Festival which is a story for another time.  Being a curious gardener, I decided take time to learn about and enjoy the plant life at Ocracoke during our week on the island. I quickly found that there wasn’t much still  growing in late October.  There were many interesting natives such as dune marsh elder and yaupon holly and a host of rugged looking azaleas.  Many home owners had decorated their front yards with beautiful pots of fall annuals and lots of pumpkins. I love the fall!

What struck me the most were the old and weathered trees lining the neighborhood streets.  The trees had arching canopies and appeared much older than the cottages they stood in front of.  They were simple, beautiful and reflected the casual nature of this unique area.  The Southern Live Oak, Quercus virginiana, as in much of the south, is plentiful in Ocracoke but the two trees that captured my attention were the Live Sand Oak, Quercus geminate, and the Laurel Oak, Quercus laurifolia.

So, did you know the name Quercus comes from two Celtic words?  Quer means beautiful and Cuez which means tree?  These trees both live up to their names.

Both share characteristics of their sibling the southern live oak but are different in their own right.  For an example, neither one achieves the towering heights of the southern live oak, plus their leaves and acorns are shaped differently.  All three are grown for their ornamental features and they have no lumber value except for firewood.

As you would expect, the Sand Oak loves the sandy scrub habitat of the coastal areas.  This is the work horse of ornamental island trees.  It is one of the top hurricane resistant options in our area.  The sand oak can grow up and over 50′ tall although some forms are shrub like and less treelike than others .  The bark is dark grayish brown and deeply furrowed.  Its leaves are leathery, deep green, a gray to almost white underside and small hairs.  This is one of the features different from live oaks.  They have large egg shaped acorns which provides a food source for many wild life.


The Laurel Oak is not an obvious choice for an environment such as Ocracoke.  This tree is listed basically as a “do not plant if there is any chance of a hurricane” specimen.  Yet there they are in yards around the  village.  It is sort of like planting a weak structured tree like a Bradford Pear, Pyrus calleryana, in the Triangle with all the ice storms we have.  People know its wrong but do it anyway.   The laurel likes moist soil but not prolonged wetness.  The bark is dark gray to blackish and not excessively furrowed.  It has thick, lustrous and dark green leathery leaves with a lighter green underside.  Their acorns a bit smaller, nearly round and also provide lots of food for wildlife.


The sand oaks in the village looked strong and sturdy… warrior like.  A few of them appeared to have never seen a strong wind let alone a hurricane although them most certainly had.  They are an important part of the landscape.

I must confess, I loved the laurel oaks the most.   Each one had a weathered look as if they fought to survive many storms.  Most had parts of limbs missing at the wrist or elbow, were bent over like they were hiding from the next strong gust or were surviving with only half of the tree remaining.  The laurel oaks had a unique character about them as if they each had a story to tell….yielding yet determined to survive.  I mentioned earlier that there were under 1,000 brave full time residents in Ocracoke.  They embrace thousands of tourists through the hot summer months then live with the isolation of long winter nights with one restaurant, no movie theaters or shopping centers.  They weather the storms, grow and determinedly flourish.

It made perfect sense to me that they would plant live laurel oaks in their little village on Ocracoke Island.