Selecting Louisiana’s Top 10 live oaks from the thousands of magnificent specimens of Quercus virginiana species across the state is a bit like choosing the Top 10 bowls of gumbo. It’s completely subjective. A few are obvious choices, with a reputation and familiarity that transcends personal taste. But then there are others that ask for inclusion because of their striking beauty, unusual shape or simply because of the circumstances of weather and light that helped me successfully translate onto film the unique personality of a specific tree. In the three decades that I’ve photographed Louisiana’s live oaks, almost everyone I speak with has a favorite tree, and I will recognize those when space allows. With this caveat, here is my selection of Louisiana’s Top 10 oaks.
Etienne de Boré Oak, Audubon Park, New Orleans: Locally, in the neighborhoods surrounding Audubon Park, this oak has been dubbed The Tree of Life, though its registered name with the Live Oak Society is the Etienne de Boré Oak. It’s an enormous oak with a girth of approximately 35 feet and a crown of more than 160 feet located in Audubon Park in an old-growth oak grove on the downriver side of Audubon Zoo. It was No. 13 on Edwin Lewis Stephens’ list of 34 original inductee trees when he founded the Live Oak Society in 1934. The tree’s namesake, Jean Etienne de Boré, is most significant in Louisiana history for being the first French planter to successfully granulate sugar cane into sugar, paving the way for sugar cane to become the main crop, surpassing indigo and tobacco, in antebellum Louisiana. De Boré also served as the first mayor of New Orleans; he was appointed to the position by Gov. William C.C. Claiborne in 1803, the same year Louisiana was transferred from Spain to France. However, he resigned the position in 1804, after New Orleans became an American colony through the Louisiana Purchase.
Seven Sisters Oak, mandeville: The Seven Sisters Oak resides in the historic community of old Mandeville, alongside Lake Pontchartrain. This historic and beautiful live oak is the current president of the Live Oak Society, a unique organization whose members are all trees, with the exception of a human secretary who registers oaks that are submitted for new membership and maintains the now-75-year-old roster. The Seven Sisters Oak was elected as president in 1968 to replace the society’s first president, the Locke Breaux Oak, which died between 1966 and 1968 from groundwater pollution. Originally registered as Doby’s Seven Sisters, the oak was first sponsored by the Doby family (Mrs. Doby was one of seven sisters), who at that time owned the property on which the tree is located. The name was later changed and the tree re-registered as the Seven Sisters Oak. In 2010, the Seven Sisters Oak reclaimed its title as “Champion Tree of the Live Oak Species with the National Register of Big Trees.” The oak’s crown (more than 130 feet) is twice as wide as its height (approximately 55 feet), and its girth is approximately 37.5 feet. Its age has been estimated to be between 500 and 1,200 years old.
Seven Brothers Oak, Washington: This is another truly ancient oak, though it is largely unknown except by Washington-area residents, who consider it a proud slice of their local history. The oak has three trunks that appear to be merged rather than growing from the same root system. One trunk section is 32 feet, 3 inches, in circumference; another is 28 feet, 11 inches; and the third is in the 20-foot range. Valerie Chachere, a descendent of the Lastrappes family who has owned the property on which the Seven Brothers Oak stands for the past four generations, relayed a story to me. The Seven Brothers Oak’s name supposedly originated from the idea that it began as seven trees with seven trunks. As the story goes, seven oak saplings were gathered by the seven sons of the Lastrappes family, and they placed the trees together on the ground to be planted into a row. However, before the oak saplings were planted, the sons were all called to join the Confederate Army, and so the trees were left in a pile and grew in place. Based on the size of the current trees, however, the oaks would easily predate the Civil War. The largest trunk of the group, with a girth of more than 30 feet, could be as old as 500 years of age.
Josephine Oak, Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie: The Josephine Oak, named after Josephine Stewart, is the largest in the alley of 28 oaks at Oak Alley Plantation. This immense tree is approximately 31 feet in circumference and more than 70 feet tall, with a crown spread of approximately 150 feet. It is the largest of the oaks in the west row of 14 trees in the historic alley. Oddly, most people assume the oaks at Oak Alley were planted at the same time that the plantation home was built, between 1836 and 1839. However, it’s estimated that the trees predate the plantation home by as much as 100 years, making this the oldest alley of oaks in Louisiana and in the U.S.
Fontainebleau Oak, Fontainebleau State Park, Mandeville: This oak is located in Fontainebleau State Park off State Highway 190 near Mandeville on the site of a historic sugar cane plantation and sugar mill owned by Bernard de Marigny de Mandeville. This old leaning oak is approximately 24 feet in circumference and grows alongside an alley of oaks that runs from the ruins of the old sugar mill to the banks of Lake Pontchartrain. The wealthy Marigny named his sugar plantation Fontainebleau after a beautiful forest near Paris. He also owned a plantation downriver from the French Quarter that became the Faubourg Marigny. In early 2010 when I last photographed the oak, it was home to a newly born pair of great horned owls.
Afton Villa Oak, Afton Villa Gardens, St. Francisville: This is another lesser-known old oak that grows on the grounds of Afton Villa Gardens. It is in the 23-foot-to-24-foot-circumference range and was reportedly planted between 1820 and 1839 by Bartholomew Barrow, the first member of the Barrow family to purchase and settle this land. The oak is registered with the Live Oak Society and has a distinctive shape, size and bushy texture formed by the resurrection fern growing profusely on its limbs. It’s located in front of the Afton Villa ruins near the end of the half-mile-long alley of oaks leading from Louisiana State Highway 61 to the gardens.
Bacas Oak, Highway 18, in the community of Wallace, near Edgard: This little-known but magnificent oak is located on Songy Court on the west bank of the Mississippi River, behind the historic Bacas House, which was built around 1840 to 1850. The property has been in the Bacas family since 1895 when Alcide Bacas purchased it from Willis Becnel. This area was the site of the first German settlements along the Mississippi River. The oak has the classic upside-down bowl shape, distinctive of a live oak that grows away from competing trees, with long drooping limbs that reach to the ground. It’s approximately 25 feet in circumference with a ropy, twisting trunk and a huge crown that is nearly 200 feet wide. The oak lost a major limb in late 2009.
Manresa Oaks, Manresa House of Retreats, Convent: These 100-plus-year-old oaks are part of the St. Joseph alley, located across River Road from the main buildings at Manresa. Although the main tree in this arrangement is only approximately 20 feet in circumference, it is notable for its unusually beautiful shape. Manresa House of Retreats was built around 1830. Originally named Jefferson College after Thomas Jefferson, it was a nonsectarian institution of higher learning where, prior to the Civil War, many wealthy Louisiana planters’ sons enrolled to receive a classical education. The main building, with its Greek Revival design, survived the Civil War as a barracks for federal troops. The college was purchased in 1864 by Valcour Aime, estimated to be the wealthiest man in Louisiana at the time. He donated the property and buildings of Jefferson College to the Catholic Marist Fathers who again operated the facility as a college. In 1931, Jesuit priests took over the school, and today they operate Manresa as a nondenominational retreat facility for laymen.
McDonogh Oak, City Park, New Orleans: The McDonogh Oak is the largest and oldest oak in New Orleans’ City Park. Along with the Anseman Oak and Suicide Oak, it comprises the oldest remnants of an ancient oak forest that was already hundreds of years old in 1718 when brothers Iberville and Bienville first scouted this area for a portage of bayous connecting the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. This system of waterways was a deciding factor for the brothers’ creation of the French settlement that became the Port of New Orleans. City Park was once part of the Jean Louis Allard Plantation, originally established in the 1770s and later purchased in 1845 by shipping magnate and philanthropist John McDonogh. Upon his death in 1850, McDonogh donated the land to the city of New Orleans, and in 1854 a large section was designated as a city park. McDonogh also left the bulk of his fortune, almost $2 million, to the cities of New Orleans and Baltimore to fund construction of a system of public schools for poor children. According to park records, in 1958 the National Park and Recreation Convention met in New Orleans and hosted a breakfast for 1,028 convention attendees under the massive spreading canopy of the oak’s limbs. In 1981, the ancient oak lost a major branch, causing severe damage. Extensive tree surgery was done, and posts were added to help support the remaining main limbs. The McDonogh Oak’s circumference is more than 25 feet, and its crown spread is more than 150 feet.