Spring is said to flow north up the East Coast about 15 miles a day — too slow for me after last winter; so on a chilly, rainy April weekend I drove to meet it in Norfolk, VA, where the Bay’s watershed nearly kisses North Carolina and the flora emulates Charleston more than Baltimore or Richmond.
I sought the Norfolk Botanical Gardens, where something’s blooming 12 months a year. Acres of azaleas were already past full blush, as dogwoods lit the forest understory and even reluctant oaks strained toward full leaf.
Such glory beckoned like cool water to a parched throat; but I almost didn’t get there. It was the live oaks’ fault. A friend said we should visit them first, and once you start with Quercus virginiana, you don’t want to leave them. They spread two or three times their height, mighty limbs swooping and gnarling, combining power and grace with a rugged fluidity — sculptures evoking centuries of wind and weather.
And live oaks invite you as no other tree: “Enter, stay beneath me awhile; climb me.” They pull you in any time of year. Even in winter, they entice.
Only here does this southern, semi-evergreen species flourish in a Chesapeake watershed encompassing 64,000 square miles. Of the more than 100 utterly magnificent tree specimens selected from all of Virginia’s 28 million acres by the authors of Remarkable Trees of Virginia, four are live oaks, and all thrive within a few miles of here.
First stop on any live oak tour: The historic Emancipation Oak on the campus of Hampton University in Hampton was called one of the world’s 10 great trees by the National Geographic Society. Had it no historical significance at all, this would be a botanical tour de force, limbs as wildly ensorcelling as Medusa’s locks, but sheltering and embracing.
Beneath these mighty boughs the children of enslaved and free blacks held class (illegal at the time in Virginia); and here a Union solder in 1863 read Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, likely for the first time in the old South. Booker T. Washington, as a student in the 1870s, read and wrote beneath the oak, ancient even then.
A short drive away spreads an even older live oak, in the courtyard of historic Fort Monroe, also in Hampton, fronting on the Chesapeake. It was a strapping tree of 60 or 70 years by the time John Smith passed this way in 1608, based on documented ages of nearby live oaks. (A thin core of wood that goes to the center of the trunk is extracted and the annual growth rings counted.)
Known as the Algernourne Oak, its dimensions are typical of the species: a short, mammoth trunk nearly 7 feet in diameter, a height of less than 60 feet, and expressive limbs meandering outward for close to 100 feet all around.
Mature live oaks are sometimes said to have that “Gone With the Wind” look. Indeed, they were featured in the classic film, and from Norfolk around to the Gulf Coast they are the iconic Southern tree, draped with Spanish moss, overarching streets and beaches as well as wrapping antebellum mansions.
You are stopped by high fencing and locked gates more than 100 feet from the Willoughby Oak, maybe the mightiest of all of its species in Virginia. (Specimens farther south can grow 30 feet around, 130 feet in spread and are an estimated 1,400 years old.) Perhaps because such trees beg to be climbed, command that you repose upon and within their broad, low limbs, the U.S. Navy, whose naval station in Hampton Roads includes the Willoughby Tree, keeps it off-limits.
Naval ownership is fitting in a way, because the dense, tough, rot-resistant wood of live oaks made them a desired material for framing naval warships early on. The USS Constitution was named Old Ironsides after sailors swore they saw British cannonballs bounce off its sides, whose live oak ribs supported heavy white oak planking fixed outside and internally to form its hull.
More up-close and personal, according to Remarkable Trees, is the huge old live oak that embraces Charlene Hood’s home in the Fairfield neighborhood of Virginia Beach. She told the authors she knew the house was too small for her family to buy, “but once I saw the tree, it was all over.” Neighbors and tour buses stop by. It is a gathering place, a community amenity.
You can easily consume a day in Tidewater Virginia among live oaks. They populate the waterfront at First Landing State Park. Sarah Constant Beach Park in the city of Norfolk has a wonderful grove.
And plan to devote another day to the 150-acre paradise that is Norfolk’s Botanical Gardens, one of the finest such spots in the Bay region, and a garden in which something always is in bloom.
Its genesis lay in a city manager’s thought that Norfolk should construct an azalea garden to rival Charleston’s, which even in the Great Depression of the 1930s drew thousands of tourists. A federal Works Progress Administration grant in 1938 enabled the hiring of around 200 African Americans, mostly women, who cleared the swamp and overgrown city property for 25 cents an hour. By 1941, it featured 5 miles of trails and 75 acres of azaleas and other plantings. That was just the start.
You can walk for hours through big, mature pines and oaks, and enjoy gardens themed along a variety of lines, from roses and camellias, to native plants, hydrangeas, Japanese maples and colonial plants.
Through December, the Dominion Garden of Lights sets the garden twinkling after dark. During the day, one can explore the winter garden and see displays of winter blooming trees and shrubs. A tropical house features orchids, bromeliads, and other hot climate species.
A “bean” garden caught my eye: species of trees, mostly native, that produce their seeds in bean pods — redbud, locust, mimosa, Kentucky coffee tree, catalpa, wisteria.
There are live oaks, but nothing quite as grand as you can see elsewhere in the area. An equally magnificent and all-American species in the gardens, longleaf pine, also reaches its natural northern limit here. Longleaf, once the dominant Coastal Plain forest from Virginia to Texas, has been reduced to a tiny fraction of its historic range by overharvesting, the planting of faster-growing loblolly pine and the suppression of the frequent fires it requires to outcompete other trees.
The gardens are a big draw for birders, too. A lot of the acreage is kept relatively natural, letting logs lie and dead trees stand. Woodpeckers abound, and eagles want to nest here, but it’s too close to the Norfolk airport for garden managers to allow it.
Open seven days a week, Norfolk Botanical Gardens also features a range of environmental education exhibits housed in large, modern buildings built of blue fieldstone.
Norfolk Botanical Gardens is located at 6700 Azalea Garden Road, Norfolk, VA 23518. For information, call 757-441-5830 or visit norfolkbotanicalgarden.org.