The crown jewels of Camp Salmen Nature Park are the beautiful Southern Live Oak trees (Quercus virginiana) that grace the grounds. Most of the oldest and finest representatives of this species are scattered around what is called “Camp Ridge” on Bayou Liberty, a part of the park where most of the Boy Scout’s buildings of old Camp Salmen once stood.
This species of oak is a tree of superlatives as they have massive trunks and branches that span large areas of ground. It’s awesome to think about the amount of tonnage they hold up in the air. Their ages easily exceed a couple of centuries. One can imagine Joseph Laurent himself taking respite under one of these stately oaks while working on his trading post (later named the Salmen Lodge) in the early 1800s.
The tree has other remarkable traits. They are an evergreen and only loose a minor amount of their leaves each year. The fallen leaves of more mature trees are somewhat toxic and discourage undergrowth beneath the tree. The tree’s wood is HARD and will challenge any saw. Fallen limbs can remain intact for years. Legend has it that sailing ship carpenters favored the tree’s curved branches for the bow stem and other critical framework. And, of course, there is often plentiful Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) draping from their branches. It is a spectacular sight to see this backlit by the late afternoon sun.
Spanish moss isn’t the only organism hitching a ride. Each tree has its own little ecology hovering around it. Several species of vine depend on the tree to hold them up to the sunlight. Resurrection ferns sprout from the branches and glow an emerald green after it rains. Knot-holes provide homes for birds, bees, squirrels, and snakes and the knarly bark provides places for predator and prey to play a miniature and deadly game of “hide and hunt” between birds and insects.
Some of the favorite oaks pose magnificently for the park’s visitors. The “Order of the Arrow Oak” is the centerpiece of our nature garden. The main parking lot has a specimen called a “Hat-rack Oak” because it spreads wide at the top as it probably grew out of thick underbrush. “The Leaning Oak” on the parade ground has got to be one of the most popular attractions in the park. Some thoughtful person propped it up many years ago with a couple of iron poles so it wouldn’t fall over. Literally hundreds of thousands of people have been drawn to it over the decades because it is so easy to climb. I call my favorite oak “The Cathedral Oak.” It leans out of the old clay pit used to build the Trading Post and makes a beautiful, arching space that you can sit inside. Find a comfortable branch and contemplate the Live Oak, its beauty and the wonder of it all.
The morning sum finds its way through the humid air and the Spanish moss hanging from a Live Oak.