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An Ode to Trees — and Their Protectors

Image of Kate's Tree by Robert Wells (2023). Part of ATC's 10th Anniversary Heritage Tree Photography Gallery

This article by Dickie Anderson was printed in the Fernandina Observer on May 20, 2024.

Live oak trees with their sprawling limbs add a dash of Southern charm from the north to the south end of Amelia Island. These gentle giants dot our island and are an intrinsic part of its charm. Many have been here for hundreds of years and have witnessed much of the island’s amazing history. Some of the grand old trees in the historic district are older than the Victorian houses that they shade so gracefully. 

Why do we call them live oaks? Very simple. They are green year-round. In the time of wooden-hulled ships, American shipbuilders prized the live oak. Not only was the wood hard and resilient, but the natural curves of its limbs lent themselves to form the hulls of ships. The oak used in building early American frigates made them legends on the high seas. The USS Constitution is said to have been built from live oaks harvested from Cumberland Island. When it effectively repelled gunfire from the HMS Guerriere, a sailor shouted, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” The ship was given the nickname “Old Ironsides.”

An old saying is that it takes a hundred years for a live oak to grow, a hundred years to live, and a hundred years to die. Many oaks live far beyond 300 years. These grand old trees have their own exclusive club. The Live Oak Society was founded in 1934. The membership requirements are exclusive – you must be a tree with 8 feet or more girth. There are more than 5,000 tree members in 14 states. The oldest member is the “Seven Sisters Oak,” located in Mandeville, Louisiana, on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It is estimated to be 1,200 years old and has a circumference of 38 feet.

We all recognize the elegant live oak as a predictable icon of the South. Add its signature Spanish moss, and you have the perfect prop for a Southern Gothic classic. What is it about Quercus virginiana var. virginiana that captures our imaginations? Is it the broad welcoming branches with their mossy mantles? Or is it the shade they offer on the hottest of Southern summer days?

Amelia Island’s most famous oak tree has a name: “Kate’s Tree.” The tree is hard to miss. It grows in the middle of Ash Street between Seventh and Eighth streets. Legend has it that Mrs. Kate Bailey, owner of the elegant Victorian home on Ash Street at Seventh Street, was known as Miss Kate. She enjoyed sitting on her porch and greeting neighbors. She became irate when she learned there were plans to take down the old grand tree in front of her house. When the workers arrived to do their job, she tried to reason with them but got nowhere. So she took action. She went into her house and returned with her husband’s shotgun. She settled into her rocker, shotgun on her knee, and did not leave until the men, intent on taking down the tree, abandoned the project. The tree still stands.

In 2013, the community was stunned when a stand of ancient oaks was taken down to make way for a gas station. A concerned group formed the Amelia Tree Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and planting trees on Amelia Island. We have this very active group to thank for improving city and county tree ordinances.

Joyce Kilmer said it well in a poem: “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” Stop and appreciate one of Amelia Island’s grand old oak trees and imagine the tales it might tell.

And if you would like to support the Amelia Tree Conservancy, go to

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