The first time I visited Charleston for a photography workshop, in 2009, I didn’t fully appreciate the grandeur of the live oaks (Quercus virginiana) that seemed to be everywhere. Spanish moss dripped from many of their branches, and even wisteria could be seen rambling through them along the roadside. This year, the oaks themselves became actors in the scenes I saw, and I came away quite overwhelmed with their size, appearance, and place in the landscape.
The largest and most stunning specimen we saw was Angel Oak, located on Johns Island near Charleston. The City of Charleston has owned both the park where it is located and the tree (which is estimated to be between 400 and 500 years old) since 1991.
The day we visited, there were a moderate number of visitors around. You’re asked not to climb on the tree, set up tripods under its canopy, or walk around in high heels, so the root area is protected (I didn’t see anyone wearing heels!) So we stayed back a respectful distance. Some of our group shot panos, while I stuck with an HDR approach to capture the image above. But I think I like it in black and white (below) almost as much.
Another destination of ours, Old Sheldon Church in Beaufort County, is the ruined remains of a stone and brick church surrounded by live oaks. We were there in the late morning, so the light wasn’t the greatest. Since I didn’t have an infrared camera, I made do by shooting and color and converting to black and white to minimize problems with the strong light. Without the surround oaks to add an air of mystery, I think the scene would have been far less interesting.
A short drive away, our leaders took us to photograph the live oaks lining the drive to a private home, Tomotley Plantation. Before we set off, Alan and Colleen stressed that we would be photographing on private property, and that the gates might be closed or we might need to leave if the owners asked us to. Since returning, I’ve done a little on line research and read that the owners are quite gracious about photographers. We didn’t linger too long, but what we saw was beautiful indeed.
The line of live oaks was apparently planted in 1820. The original plantation, burned by Sherman’s troops, was rebuilt in the late 1800’s. The view down the driveway from the front gates (kindly left open by the owners), was gorgeous. With no wind to disturb the moss on the oaks, we shot to our hearts’ content.
It was at our last stop on the trip, Middleton Place, that I found myself once again appreciating the beauty of these trees in a more “garden-like” setting. Their majestic size and the way their branches bend and arch make them a perfect foil for a waterside setting.
And in a more intimate setting, their presence lends just the right air of mystery and enclosure.
For more information about live oaks, including their usefulness in shipbuilding in the past, check out the article in Wikipedia. And if you have an opportunity to visit Charleston or other Southern states, keep an eye out for them in the landscape. They’re quite a sight to behold.