Steve Bender

There is something mystical about a live oak lined street.

Grumpy’s escapades through the South over the years have carried him down some of the prettiest neighborhood streets in our region. And when I think to what made these places special, it wasn’t just the architecture of the houses, the lushness of the lawns, or the baskets of flowers suspended from the light posts. No, it was the magnificence of the trees.

I took the photograph above at Ashland Place in Mobile, Alabama. Massive live oaks (Quercus virginiana) on either side of the street link arms above it, forming a sheltering canopy. The scale of the spectacle is awe-inspiring, yes, but that’s not all that feel as you stand before and below it. You also feel a sense of comfort and calm, because you’re no longer exposed to an open sky. The trees have taken you in.

Scenes like this are commonplace along the Gulf and South Atlantic Coasts, because this is where live oaks thrive. They like long, sultry summers, abundant rainfall, and short, mild winters. You might expect to encounter such canopy roads in Houston, New Orleans, Tallahassee, Savannah, Charleston, and Wilmington, North Carolina. Not in my USDA Zone 8A stomping grounds of Birmingham, however. Oh, live oaks will survive here, but in 500 years they’ll never look like these.

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Is there any other tree that’s more cold-hardy that can create a comparable canopy effect? They’re used to be. It was called the American elm (Ulmus americana) and its tall, arching branches formed leafy cathedrals above city streets in the Northeast and Midwest. Then the Dutch elm reached North America around 1928 and before too long, tree-lined streets were lined with stumps.

Canopy Tree Alternatives

Not everyone can grow live oaks like these, but you do have choices if you want to approximate the look (“approximate” is the key word). Keep in mind that this really doesn’t work unless everyone one the street plants the same kind of tall-growing shade tree and you all live to be 150. Regular exercise and use of essential oils will help.

Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) – 60 to 80 feet tall, USDA Zones 3-8)
‘Green Vase’ sawleaf zelkova (Zelkova serrata ‘Green Vase’) – 60 to 80 feet tall, USDA Zones 5-8
London planetree (Platanus hispanica) – 70 to 80 feet tall, USDA Zones 5-8
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) – 50 to 60 feet tall, USDA Zones 3-8
Texas or Nuttall oak (Quercus texana) – 60 to 70 feet tall, USDA Zones 5-9)
Water oak (Quercus nigra) – 60 to 80 feet tall, USDA Zones 6-10)
Willow oak (Quercus phellos) – 60 to 90 feet tall, USDA Zones 5-9)