Volusia Oak

Volusia Oak is located near the town of Astor at the east side of the SR 40 bridge over the St. Johns River, in Northwest Volusia County, Florida. This magnificent oak is centuries old and largely forgotten by time.

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As I embrace the tree curious drivers zoom past on SR 40, never noticing the amazing centuries old tree above me. Volusia Oak is likely 300-600 years old.

There are two plaquest on the site around the tree. Both are well-worn and hard to read. The large bronze marker reads:

Volusia, on the east back on the river St. Johns, is the birthplace of Volusia County and the oldest settlement. The United States Courts confirmed Horatio Dexter's 1815 Spanish title and Joseph Rattenbury's 1817 title to the 17,000 acre Volusia tract, which extended from the Mayacan Indian Mounds (1658) north to Lake George. Volusia Township was surveyed in 1821 divided into government lots in 1834 and confirmed on the United States Cadastral Survey Map.

The plaque continues:

This majestic oak marks the center of many historic sites to the southwest was the fort and mission San Salvador de Mayaca (1667), to the south Spalding's Upper Store (1763), which became Panton Leslie Indian Trading House (1778). Also in the vicinity during the Creek Seminole Indian War period (1835-1858) were Forts Volusia, Call, Barnwell and Columbia Volusia Military Cemetery adjoining this site and the Methodist Episcopal Church was built in 1845 within Ft. Call's enclosure. Erected by the Volusia County Historical Commission. 1978.

The second plaque on the site was erected by the Pierson Garden Club, Pierson, Florida in cooperation with the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs and Florida Department of State and Florida Department of Transportation.

The plaque reads: National Council of State Garden Clubs, Deep South Region, WILLIAM BARTRAM TRAIL. Traced 1773-1777. Wm. Bartram, Famed Naturalist classified flora and fauna for shipment, here, at Spalding's Upper Store, May and June 1774.

Neither plaques on the site specifically mention the tree by name but I've always called it "Volusia Oak," and I always stop for a few minutes and talk to the tree when I pass.

Mast Years in Oaks

During my most recent visit to Volusia Oak I noticed there were few acorns under the great old tree. It got me thinking about what causes mast years in oaks.

That is to question, How do individual trees benefit by producing variable seed crops? There are two basic hypotheses. First, the size of the seed crop tracks some critical resource (the “resource-matching” hypothesis), therefore annual variation in resources causes masting patterns. Second, masting results from the reallocation of resources among years so as to increase the efficiency with which seeds are produced. This in turn may be through more efficient escape from predation (the “predator satiation” hypothesis), increased attraction of seed dispersers (the “seed dispersal” hypothesis), or increased fertilization success, particularly in wind-pollinated species (the “wind pollination” hypothesis).

Read more about masting in live oaks at:

From theory to experiments for testing the proximate mechanisms of mast seeding: an agenda for an experimental ecology

by some of the world's renowned plant biologists: Michał Bogdziewicz, Davide Ascoli, Andrew Hacket‐Pain, Walter D. Koenig, Ian Pearse, Mario Pesendorfer, Akiko Satake, Peter Thomas, Giorgio Vacchiano, Thomas Wohlgemuth, and Andrew Tanentzap.

Live Oakers

Another even larger oak, Fairchild Oak, survived the late 18th century Live Oakers (people who came from Europe to the American South harvest wood in the 1770s). Then, European forests were depleted by the demand for firewood and wood materials. At the time Florida live oaks averaged 60 feet tall with wide-spreading branches and rounded crowns. The large strong curved oak branches were well suited for ship bracing. In 1827 the US Navy surveyed East Florida and reported that large parts of East Central Florida were already timbered. Although illegal by 1821, John James Audubon wrote of seeing live oak "thieves" in East Central Florida in 1832. Read part of Audubon's account below.

Fairchild Oak

Fairchild Oak is located about 30 miles toward the coast from Volusia Oak and they both survived the same conditions (more of less) including hurricanes, wars, floods, fires, and all other sorts of human predation like live oak trade timbering.

Fairchild Oak though now located in a State Park but it is much more threatened than Volusia Oak because of crowds of people visiting daily and climbing on its low hanging limbs and trampling the area around its base. The park is barely monitored (if at all).

In the photo above a low hanging limb creates an arch in the foreground. A few months later the massive limb has been felled and someone has tried to carve pieces of it with a chainsaw (below). I stand in this image for scale.

Both Volusia Oak and Fairchild Oak are over 70 feet tall. Fairchild Oak's branches spread further. Some branches spread 300 feet from the trunk of the tree and grow into the sandy soils where they contact the ground.

The plaque at the base of Fairchild Oaks says that it is 2000 years old but both trees are more likely 400 to 600 years old. Both trees have survived countless land owners and both are today located on state lands that are again, lightly regulated (if at all). So they are now most imperiled by man and by climate change.

The first Native Americans moved into the areas along the East Coast of Florida 5,000 years ago. The British ruled in the late 18th century and all the Native Americans were dead by 1767. In 1835 the 2nd Seminole War raged in this area and all of the areas plantations were burned. Somehow, someway, these trees have survived all of this humanity, and yet today they seem more imperiled than ever.

Audubon's 1835 Encounter with Live Oakers

“The traveler who has pursued his course for many miles over the barrens, is suddenly delighted to see in the distance the appearance of a dark ‘hummock’ of live oaks and other trees, seeming as if they had been planted in the wilderness. As he approaches, the air feels cooler and more salubrious, the song of numerous birds delights his ear, the herbage assumes a more luxuriant appearance, the flowers become larger and brighter, and a grateful fragrance is diffused around. These objects contribute to refresh his mind, as much as the sight of the waters of some clear spring, gliding among the undergrowth, seems already to allay his thirst. Over head festoons of innumerable vines, jessamines, and bignonias, link each tree with those around it, their slender stems being interlaced as if in mutual affection. No sooner, in the shade of these beautiful woods, has the traveler finished his mid-day repast, than he perceives small parties of men lightly accoutred, and each bearing an axe, approaching towards his resting place. They exchange the usual civilities, and immediately commence their labours, for they too have just finished their meal.”

“I think I see them proceeding to their work. Here two have stationed themselves on the opposite sides of the trunk of a noble and venerable live-oak. Their keen-edged and well-tempered axes seem to make no impression on it, so small are the chips that drop at each blow around the mossy and wide-spreading roots. There, one is ascending the stem of another, of which, in its fall, the arms have stuck among the tangled tops of the neighbouring trees. See how cautiously he proceeds, barefooted, and with a handkerchief round his head. Now he has climbed to the height of about forty feet from the ground; he stops, and squaring himself with the trunk on which he so boldly stands, he wields with sinewy arms his trusty blade, with repeated blows of which, although the tree be as tough as it is large, will soon sever it in two. He has changed sides, and his back is turned to you. The trunk now remains connected by only a thin strip of wood. He places his feet on the part which is lodged, and shakes it with all his might. Now swings the huge log under his leaps, now it suddenly gives way, and as it strikes upon the ground its echoes are repeated through the hummock, and every wild turkey within hearing utters his gobble of recognition. The wood-cutter, however, remains collected and composed; but the next moment, he throws his axe to the ground, and, assisted by the nearest grape-vine, slides down and reaches the earth in an instant.”

“Several men approach and examine the prostrate trunk. They cut at both its extremities, and sound the whole of its bark, to enable them to judge if the tree has been attacked by the white-rot. If such has unfortunately been the case, there, for a century or more, this huge log will remain until it gradually crumbles; but if not, and if it is free of injury or “wind-shakes,” while there is no appearance of the sap having already ascended, and its pores are altogether sound, they proceed to take its measurement. Its shape ascertained, and the timber that is fit for use laid out by the aid of models, which, like fragments of the skeleton of a ship, shew the forms and sizes required, and the hewers commence their labours. Thus, reader, perhaps every known hummock in the Floridas is annually attacked, and so often does it happen that the white-rot or some other disease has deteriorated the quality of the timber, that the woods may be seen strewn with trunks that have been found worthless, so that every year the valuable oaks are becoming scarcer. The destruction of the young trees of their species caused by the fall of the great trunks is of course immense, and as there are no artificial plantations of these trees in our country, before long a good sized live-oak will be so valuable that its owner will exact an enormous price for it, even while it yet stands in the wood. In my opinion, formed on personal observation, live-oak hummocks are not quite so plentiful as they are represented to be, and of this I will give you one illustration.”