April approaches, and as the days get warmer, we northerners are delighted to see the first shoots of spring peeking out of the ground. But things won’t be greening up in earnest for a few weeks yet, so I thought I’d fill in with a photo of the most impressive vegetation I’ve seen on my travels this winter: the live oaks of Louisiana.
These majestic trees are an emblem of the deep South — especially Louisiana, where they create a grand setting for big plantation houses, like Oak Alley (you may remember my photos of the great house). And they grow pretty much everywhere; I photographed this graceful row of oaks in City Park, the huge, beautiful nature park in New Orleans.
The live oaks of Louisiana are amazing trees. They’re called “live oaks” because unlike other deciduous trees, they keep their leaves all winter. And while they’re not the tallest specimens around, they may be the widest. Their branches spread out up to a width of 27 meters, or 88 feet, creating a leafy tent big enough to shelter a whole church choir.
And to complete their graceful, sweeping appearance, most live oaks are hung with a flowing veil of Spanish moss. That’s an epiphyte, or air plant, that lives on nutrients blown in on the wind. And it was used for many things in the old South, including stuffing furniture and mattresses: old-time beds came equipped with a big rolling pin for smoothing out the moss after a night’s sleep.
There’s even a legend about how Spanish moss came to be: once upon a time, an Indian princess died in the Louisiana woodland and was buried at the foot of a live oak. Her widowed husband, to commemorate her, tied the braids of her hair to the branches of the tree. Over time, they grew grey, and then flew away to light in other trees. And today they preserve her memory all across the Southland.
Walking among the live oaks of Louisiana, under the sweeping tendrils of Spanish moss, you can almost believe the legend: the trees have a magical quality to them. In fact, I found them just as impressive as the elegant buildings and great plantation houses of New Orleans. And what a bonus to have them in leaf all year round. Too bad they don’t grow here in the north, where we’re still waiting for spring.
Hint: click on the photo to see it full-size.