Forty Acres Field Guide: Live Oak

UT is an urban university in the heart of the city, yet the campus and its environs teem with fascinating plants and animals—from tropical parakeets to the world’s weirdest cactus.


Live Oak
(Quercus virginiana)

At The University of Texas, no tree is more iconic than the live oak.  Usually wider than they are tall, with majestic, winding branches that can grow to rest along the ground, live oaks offer much-needed shade to vast swaths of the Forty Acres. They are also a living record of University history—from the Battle Oaks, which at 300 years old are UT’s oldest trees, to the Constitution Oak, planted in 1937 to mark the U.S. Constitution’s 150th birthday.

In recent decades, UT officials have gone to great effort and expense to save cherished oaks from the path of construction projects (as editor-in-chief Tim Taliaferro chronicled in the award-winning Alcalde story “The War for the Trees,” January|February 2008). In 2003, 13 live oaks were painstakingly moved to make room for the Blanton Museum; 16 were transplanted during the 2006 Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium expansion. “People really attach themselves to this tree,” says Jim Carse, UT’s urban forester. “Live oaks are the bread-and-butter tree of the campus.”

Oak FactNow some Texans are worried about oak wilt, a deadly fungal disease that has killed thousands of oaks in 74 Texas counties. It hasn’t yet been spotted on the Forty Acres, but the impact could be devastating: 66 percent of UT’s more than 5,000 trees are live oaks. “There are things you can do to slow it down,” Carse says, “but there is no cure.”

To protect against the threat of oak wilt, Carse and his forestry team have diversified by planting dozens of tree species. “When almost your entire canopy is one species of tree, you run the risk of an insect or a disease wiping out all those trees,” he explains. “It would look like an atom bomb went off.”  He’s also betting that an aggressive strategy—including sterilizing pruning equipment, improving soil quality, and closely monitoring tree health—will keep UT’s canopy safe.

To read the rest of the Forty Acres Field Guide, click here.

Illustration by Jason Holley.


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