OTBP: Angel Oak

Off the Beaten Path: Angel Oak

Patti and Tom Burkett

Charleston, South Carolina is full of bloody history, low country folklore, and pirate tales, so us finding such a thing there was maybe not a surprise.

John’s Island, a bit south and west of the city (see interactive map below), is home to one of the largest trees in the U.S. — the Angel Oak.  It’s a southern live oak tree with a canopy that extends over most of an acre.  This tree was already huge when the American Revolution started.  Its longest branch is 187 feet, and five adults can barely reach around it.

It’s said that the name comes from the angel ghosts of slaves who gather in its branches on moonless nights, but actually, the land it’s on was owned for many years by the Angel family and called Angel Farm.  Nowadays it belongs to the city of Charleston and operates as a free city park, host to nature talks and occasional parties.

Many of the branches of the tree support patches of epiphytic ferns that dry up and turn brown when water is scarce.  When it rains, they become lush and green.  It’s no surprise they’re called resurrection ferns.

We visited on a wet morning after a rainstorm and the tree was covered with them.  Photo opportunities a-plenty, but for a reason we couldn’t discover, tripods are not allowed, so bring a steady hand.

As you travel around the country, you can visit other big and famous trees, and maybe you have.  There are the Evangeline Oaks in St. Martinsville, Louisiana, where the lovers in Longfellow’s poem met, and the Survivor Tree in Oklahoma City.

There are also The Hangman’s Elm in Manhattan’s Washington Park that is over 300 years old, and the Big Tree (catchy name, right?) on Goose Island in Texas that has been there for more than 1,000 years.

Sure, the General Sherman sequoia in California is impressive, and worth as many visits as you can make, and the bristlecone pines of Utah’s Great Basin may be 4,000 years old, but there are lots of arboreal superstars scattered across the country. 

Visit Charleston.  Eat shrimp and grits. Buy a Gullah basket. Take pictures of Rainbow Row.  Then head out to spend some time with the serene majesty of the Angel Oak.  You’ll be glad you did.  Happy travels!




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  • Gene Bjerke

    Unfortunately, the Wye Oak in Maryland, which was (is?) a one-tree state forest blew down in a storm a few years ago. There is now a sapling from the original tree growing in the stumpy remains of the original 400+ year old tree. A sad loss, but it should be back in another 400 years.