March 5, 2008

Live Oak or Laurel Oak – Do You Know the Difference?

By Pam Brown,
Urban Horticulture Extension Agent, Pinellas County Extension

When you first notice them, a majestic Live Oak and a Laurel Oak may look like the same tree, but there are some important differences that could be very important to you and your landscape over the years. Both are Florida native trees.

First let’s look at the characteristics of each tree:

Live Oak, Quercus virginiana

Live Oakis a large, sprawling, tree that grows to a mature height of 60 to 80 feet with a spread of 60 to 120 feet. It develops very strong wood that is quite resistant to decay. These trees can live for 300 years or more, are very tolerant to drought and are somewhat tolerant of salt.
Live Oak leaves
The leaves of the Live Oak have smooth edges that are sometimes toothed and are a lustrous green on top and pale green with very fine fuzz on the underside. Live Oaks will retain leaves until after the next year’s foliage has appeared, making it a true evergreen. Clusters of three to five acorns are found on long stalks attached to twigs. The mature bark is a deep red-brown and slightly furrowed vertically.

Laurel Oak, Quercus laurifolia,

Laurel Oakis a tall, broad tree that grows to a height of 60 or more feet with a fairly symmetrical oval canopy spread of 40 to 60 feet. The fast growth rate results in relatively weak wood that is prone to break and decay. Laurel Oaks have a lifespan of 50 to 70 years when grown in ideal conditions. These trees are moderately drought tolerant and have a low salt tolerance.
Laurel Oak leaves
The leaves of the Laurel Oak are smooth, narrow, shiny green on top and pale underneath with a yellow midrib. The margins of the leaves are either smooth or irregularly lobed. Acorns are about ½ inch long and found singly attached directly to the twig. The bark is a dark reddish-brown that becomes deeply fissured with age.

Now, why is this important for you and your landscape?
Research at the University of Florida has shown that the Laurel Oak is very prone to failure in hurricane winds due to the weak wood and their tendency to decay. These trees may not be appropriate to plant near a home or other structure. Their deep roots and a relatively short height in relation to crown spread, along with strong wood help the Live Oak withstand the high winds and strong storm surges that can bring trees down during hurricanes. For research details:

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