We have a certain fondness for sand live oaks, as we were married outdoors under a canopy of mature sand live oaks near the shores of Doe Lake.
Living in an area with a lot of scrub habitat, we see them frequently. They are one of the more common oaks along trails in scrub and scrubby flatwoods.
Sand live oaks are often as broad as they are tall. As they grow, they frequently arc their trunks. Their width can greatly exceed their height.
On some hikes, we’ve referred to them as “wiggly trees” as the ones that don’t lean and branch tend to grow tall and thin with weirdly wiggly trunks.
Sand live oaks grow in clusters, in part because they will resprout from their roots if burned. They essentially clone themselves if burned to the ground. Their acorns form in pairs.
Leaves and Bark
The leaves of a sand live oak average 2 inches long. Fresh growth comes on the tree in the spring, immediately replacing the old leaves dropped.
If you pick up a leaf of a sand live oak, you will find it somewhat waxy and crisp.
It has a slight curvature that forms enough of a canoe shape it can often float upside down on water.
In scrub habitat, young sand live oaks stand out because their canoe-shaped leaves differ greatly from the leaves of the other diminutive oaks found in scrub
Common oaks in Florida scrub
The bark of a sand live oak is very dark, a deep gray with some brown mostly evident if you break off a piece of bark. It furrows and crackles as the tree grows larger.
We’ve observed that sand live oaks prefer scrub, sandhill, and scrubby flatwoods habitats.
They do well in well-drained sandy soil, forming an understory canopy beneath taller trees like longleaf pine.
While we have heard them referred to as a climax species for sandhill, a 2016 study at Eglin showed that shade from midstory oaks contributed significantly to the growth of young longleaf pines.
Fire suppression, however, makes a difference. When fire is intentionally excluded from oak scrub, sand live oaks can grow more quickly and outshade other species.
Sand live oaks are a keystone species for xeric (dry) hammocks.
There, they provide the primary canopy, and gather a lot of Spanish moss when along the edges of lakes.
We’ve seen sand live oaks as far south as Naples Preserve in Naples and Crystal Lake Sand Pine Scrub in northern Broward, and in all counties north of those points.
We’ve also seen them up the Atlantic Coast as far north as Cape Fear, North Carolina. They are reported to extend through the Outer Banks.
To the west, we’ve documented them in coastal hammocks along the Gulf of Mexico through Mississippi. Their range officially extends through coastal Mississippi.
Sand live oaks are found in coastal scrubs on barrier islands. Their roots are not salt tolerant, but their waxy, curved leaves minimize the toxic effect from sea mist.
In coastal areas, sand live oak branches are easily shaped by prevailing winds.
The same may hold true inland with the “wiggly trees” we see. They seem less likely to uproot than Southern live oaks.
Having owned an acre under a canopy of sand live oaks in a former sandhill turned subdivision, Sandra can attest to their unique ability to deflect wind.
Because sand live oaks tend to cluster together, with trunks often seeming to come out of the same roots, they interlock their branches as they fill out the canopy.
During the four hurricanes of 2004, Sandra did not lose a single shingle from her home, but had an acre’s worth of small thin branches to pick up.
Her neighbors, who cut down most or all of their sand live oaks, all needed roof repairs. If they had no trees, a fair chunk of their roof peeled off.
Compared to Live Oaks
Biologically, sand live oaks are considered a sister species or subspecies of live oak, and sometimes referred to as Quercus virginiana var. geminata.
But they have obvious differences. First, sand live oak differ from live oaks (Quercus virginiana) in size.
Live oaks have thicker trunks, generally grow taller, and have crowns that are much broader.
Comparing mature oaks
By way of size comparison, the 1997 national co-champion sand live oak, discovered in Alachua County, was 94 feet tall, had a 100 foot crown spread and a trunk with a diameter of 15 feet.
Also in Alachua County, the 1997 state co-champion live oak, was 85 feet tall, had a 160 foot crown spread, and a trunk with a diameter of 30 feet.
Live oak leaves are larger, up to 5 inches in length, and broader. They do not curl at the edges as sand live oak leaves do. Sand live oak leaves are much narrower.
Live oaks have a reddish-brown bark, while sand live oaks have a grayish bark with hints of brown. Both get furrowed with age.
Unlike sand live oaks, live oaks can be found in many different types of habitats and are often used for landscaping because their branches fill out nicely.
Sand live oaks do better in drier soils, while live oaks grow in habitats ranging from periodically flooded palm hammocks to bluff forests and maritime hammocks.
Live oaks do not grow in close clusters like sand live oaks.
Instead, they branch out quickly as they rise, with trunks branching near the base, which greatly expands their crown spread.
From our experience, you are more likely to see red blanket lichen and shield lichen growing on sand live oak trunks and limbs, with only scattered resurrection ferns and smaller, lighter bromeliads like ball moss.
Live oaks appear to host heavier loads of resurrection fern, bromeliads, and orchids, making their limbs look almost furry. Spanish moss drapes from both trees.
Both trees do not drop their leaves until new leaves are forming, so they are both considered an evergreen oak.
When trying to identify oaks in the field, keep in mind that oaks are known to hybridize naturally. You may run into oaks that share characteristics of multiple species.
Where to see sand live oaks
A few of the many hikes where you can see sand live oaks in sandhill habitats
Named for a feature on old navigational maps, Sleeping Turtles Preserve North lets you see the Myakka River from its bluffs
Just south of the Withlacoochee River lies the Two Mile Prairie Tract of Withlacoochee State Forest, where the Johnson Pond Trail provides a walk through sandhills and oak scrub, touching on prairies along its 2.7-mile loop.
Following the high ground above Devil’s Washbasin and Gold Head Ravine, the Florida Trail works its way across Gold Head Branch State Park on a scenic 3.5 mile route
Look for young sand live oaks in scrub habitats
Formerly known as Rocky Point Hammock, Maggy’s Hammock Park protects 22 acres of tropical forest and scrub on the Atlantic Coastal Ridge in Port Salerno
On more than 3 miles of trails, Lakeland Highlands Scrub offers a close-up look at the Lakeland Ridge, an ancient island when Florida was beneath the seas: parts of this 551-acre preserve are at 230 feet elevation.
An easy walk of 2 miles, the Salt Springs Loop in the Ocala National Forest is a popular hike, since it leads to an observation platform on Salt Springs Run.