Since the early 19th century, Savannah planted out trees in its streets and squares to provide shade in the summer and beauty the year round, earning it the title of “The Forest City.” Today, its arching live oaks, swathed with picturesquely gothic drapes of Spanish moss, are one of the city’s most charming and typical sights.
The live oak (Quercus virginiana) could well be said to be Savannah’s favorite tree, ornamenting streets, parks and cemeteries across the city. It is also the state tree of Georgia, designated as such in 1937.
Together with the palmetto (Sabal palmetto) and the magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), the live oak was chosen in the 1890s as one of the three species most distinctive to the South and most suitable for street planting.
Besides these three chief species, other trees were chosen for the beauty and variety they lent to Savannah’s street scenes. The sweet gum, black gum, dogwood and crape/crepe myrtle, or lagerstroemia, had beautiful flowers, all crucially flowering at staggered parts of the year, so that there might always be something to attract the eye of visitors and residents.
The predominant street tree in Savannah is the southern live oak, distinguished by its size and majesty and by the huge drapes of moss that usually hang from its branches. Most of the shade trees in the city’s squares, in Forsyth Park, in Bonaventure and Laurel Grove cemeteries, and its streets (Jones Street is one of the best examples) are of this type.
Another quintessential southern tree, far less common than the live oak but still with numerous specimens in Savannah’s squares and streets, is the magnolia. This too is an easy tree to identify, with its thick, waxy, evergreen leaves and its large and showy flowers in summer.
A less conspicuous but fairly common street tree in Savannah is the crepe myrtle, or lagerstroemia. A small, slender, sometimes shrubby tree, often with multiple thin trunks, this is another southern favorite, with pretty bark and masses of beautiful flowers in summer.
A fourth commonly-planted street tree in Savannah is the palmetto, the majority of the large palm trees in the city being of this type.
Other notable tree species you can see in Savannah’s parks and streets include the dogwood tree, marked by its profusion of four-petaled, white or pink springtime flowers, and the tulip tree, whose leaves look like a sycamore leaf with the top cut off and whose flowers, from which the tree’s name derives, bear a close resemblance to tulips.
Distinctive shrubs include the winter-flowering camellia, whose large, usually pink or white, flowers look a bit like roses, and the more common spring-flowering azalea, whose abundant clusters of flowers, again usually pink or white, are one of the best things about spring in Savannah.
Many species of oak are collectively referred to as “live oaks,” meaning, in this case, that they are evergreen, rather than deciduous as with other oak species.
Savannah’s live oaks, however – those in Bonaventure Cemetery and Forsyth Park, the squares and along many of its streets – are primarily of one specific species, Quercus virginiana, or the southern live oak, as it is alternately known. A native southern tree, its natural habitat stretches down the Atlantic Coast from Virginia to Florida, and westwards along the coast to Texas.
Along with the palmetto and the magnolia, the live oak was chosen in the 1890s as one of the three species best suited to life as a Savannah street tree. In the end, it was by far the most commonly-planted species, accounting for around two-thirds of the city’s public trees.
The live oak’s many advantages make it a popular tree for municipal and private plantings across the southeastern United States. Besides being a beautiful tree, the live oak is frost-resistant and requires minimal care once established.
The species is storm-resistant too. The main cause of tree loss during storms and hurricanes is uprooting. The live oak, however, is unusual amongst trees for being, once fully grown, wider than it is tall: a typical tree might grow to 60 feet tall, and 80 or more feet wide. A low center of gravity, along with its strong and extensive system of roots, helps the tree remain upright in high winds. Branch loss, whilst still a hazard for live oaks during the strongest storms, is rarely fatal to the tree.
Additionally, the live oak, unlike several of Georgia’s other native trees, thrives in the city’s well drained soils. Other species, such as the previously preferred water oak, are used to the swampier conditions of Georgia’s lowlands and fare less well under city conditions.
The live oak can also be very long lived. It commonly lives for several hundred years. The “Angel Oak,” on South Carolina’s John’s Island, near Charleston, for example, is at least five or six hundred years old, and reputedly (but improbably) well over 1000.
Despite its name, Spanish moss (the botanical name for which is Tillandsia usneoides) is neither a moss, nor of Spanish origin. It is a member of the Bromeliad family (the other most widely known member of which is the pineapple), and native to the Americas.
Spanish moss has the most extensive natural range of the Bromeliads, growing as far north as Virginia, and from there down through most of the southern states and Central and South America, making its most southerly appearances in Argentina and Chile.
Because it obtains the water it needs directly from the air, Spanish moss is most commonly found in areas with high levels of moisture in the air: humid regions such as the southeastern states, and places near rivers or other large bodies of water provide an ideal habitat for the plant.
Despite needing moisture to thrive, the moss is able to survive extended periods of drought, though it will die if deprived of water for more than around three months.
The species most often grows on larger hardwood trees, usually the southern live oak or bald cypress, though it grows on other trees too, including sweetgum, crepe myrtle and other oak species.
The moss grows in enormous swathes hanging from the branches of its tree hosts. The trails of moss, which can grow to almost 100ft in length, are not a single plant, however, but rather are made up of many thousands of individual specimens, each only a few inches long. A large proportion of the trains of moss may be dead.
The moss does not directly harm the trees upon which it lives, as it is an epiphyte, rather than a parasite. Whilst parasitic plants take their water and nutrients from their host, epiphytic species acquire everything they need from the air, rain and the debris that accumulates on the host plant. The host (in the case of Tillandsia usneoides, the branches of a tree) is needed only for support.
In some cases, the presence of moss may, however, be incidentally damaging to the trees. When it grows into especially large clumps, its immense weight - particularly when wet - may break branches off the tree and increase the risk of storm damage. Very extensive growth may also sometimes inhibit the ability of the tree to photosynthesise its own food, restricting its growth and vigor.
Spanish moss flowers in summer, though its miniscule flowers, usually yellow green in color, or more blueish, can only be seen upon close examination. Though the plants do set seed, most spread of the moss is by vegetative reproduction: the plants produce many little offshoots, which are spread by the wind or animals and birds to other trees.
Spanish moss is home to a variety of wildlife, ranging from small insects up to small mammals and birds and even snakes. Several species of bat roost in the moss, and several species of bird either make their nests directly inside the clumps of moss, or use strands of it to build their nests elsewhere. There is also a species of spider that lives exclusively on Spanish moss.