Standing tall between the I-75 corridor and a rapidly expanding suburb, an aged giant spreads its arms around a world of chirping squirrels, scuttering anoles and choral songbirds. And now, this giant holds a statewide title: It’s Florida’s new champion live oak tree, the largest of its species in the state.
Dave and Liz Wilson, 69 and 65, didn’t expect to share their retirement years with a champion live oak until they moved to the 10-acre property the tree resides on in Alachua in 2021. They affectionately nicknamed it “Grandpa.”
“I like trees. I think they’re beautiful — but this one is just amazing. This one kind of speaks to you. You can come out here and sit underneath and just feel it communicating,” said Mrs. Wilson. “I do like to come out here and talk to it.”
The Wilsons are a welcoming, silver-haired couple who retired to Alachua from commercial-banking careers in Charlotte, N.C.
They were looking for plenty of open land, a single-story house and a place to park their RV. When they found their property near San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park, the massive tree was an unexpected but cherished surprise.
“The listing said something about having a historical tree, but that wasn’t the selling point,” Mrs. Wilson said. It wasn’t until she and her husband visited the property that they realized how special the nearly 80-foot-tall giant truly was.
“I thought it was magnificent,” she said. “We made an offer that day.”
An arborist encouraged the Wilsons to measure the super-sized oak tree in their new front yard. City of Gainesville Arborist Dave Conser nominated the tree to the Florida Forest Service as a contender for the Florida Champion in July 2022. Champion trees are the largest-known living individuals of their species.
The Wilsons’ tree was deemed the Florida Champion live oak in October 2022. The tree has a trunk circumference of 36.5 feet, a height of 78 feet, and a maximum crown spread of 180 feet.
Alachua County is also home to Florida’s previous champion live oak, the Cellon Oak, which still stands at Cellon Oak Park north of Gainesville. While the Cellon Oak is about 13 feet taller, the Wilsons’ oak trumps it by circumference and crown spread. It’s also in better shape.
Conser said he’s never seen anything like this tree in his longtime career as a forester in Alachua County. It’s the ideal Southern live oak, Quercus virginia. “There are other oak species in Florida that are good,” said Conser, “but none of them are quite as great, in my opinion, as a live oak tree.”
“So strong, it’s stupid strong”
Conser estimates that the Wilsons’ tree is 200 to 300 years old. He said live oaks typically grow half an inch to an inch in diameter annually once they’re mature. They can live for up to 500 years.
He said it’s clear the tree is in excellent health because all 12 limbs touch the ground and turn back upward. The low, wide spread of the tree’s limbs to the ground makes it—and live oaks like it—super resilient to storm winds, he said, acting like 12 anchors driven into the Earth.
“The wood of live oaks is so strong, it’s stupid strong,” he said. Case in point: The USS Constitution, its hull built of live oak lumber in the late 18th century, was nicknamed “Old Ironsides ” after withstanding enemy fire in the War of 1812. “And eight-pound cannon balls would just bounce off the sides of it because of the strength of that live oak wood,” Conser said. “It’s really good at resisting decay.”
The tree has a long, obvious scar running several feet up its northern side. The healed wood runs in waves, calling back to a split second in time when burning hot, electric currents drove through the trunk. It’s an old lightning wound, Mrs. Wilson said, and it’s healed over excellently.
While the scar is a convincing testament to the health of the tree, it also leaves Mrs. Wilson slightly uneasy. “I’ve actually had nightmares about it getting struck by lightning or vandalized,” she said.
But the Wilsons’ tree is unlikely to succumb any time soon. The conditions found in Alachua County are ideal for live oak trees to thrive. Plus, “it’s just an incredibly tough, strong tree,” Conser said.
One tree, many caretakers
Cellon Oak, the previous Florida Champion, stands in a public park at 4100 NW 169th Place that’s open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. The Wilsons feel that their tree, too, should be accessible even if it is privately owned.
“I think when you are the caretaker for something like this, you can’t keep it to yourself,” said Mrs. Wilson. “I don’t think of it as my tree, I just think of it as being on my property.”
Admirers are welcome to drive by and see the tree in its field at 12624 NW 93rd Place. Its massive presence is impressive even from behind the wooden fence. The couple’s contact information is available on the tree’s champion page via the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
If Conser is correct about the tree’s age, Florida’s new champion live oak likely predates creation of Alachua County in 1824 and Florida statehood in 1845. Its first caretakers may have been Timucua, the Native people in North Central Florida when the Spanish arrived.
What history it must have witnessed, Mrs. Wilson mused: “I’m sure he has lots of stories to tell.”