The 400-year-old Angel Oak is one of the most remarkable living things east of the Mississippi

Stefan Andrews
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Some trees are just more awesome than others and it’s usually for a very good reason. When we see an old tree, we are usually impressed by its beauty, size, or shape. If it is not for any of these reasons, then it’s often for some related piece of history.

The Great Basin bristlecone pine is a tree that can be found in the high mountains of California, Nevada, and Utah. Many living specimens were standing millennia ago. In fact, one example is considered one of the oldest living organisms on earth with a mind-boggling age of 5,056 years.

Or perhaps you’ve heard of the giant redwood Luna, thought to be 1,500 years old. The striking event in its history was a woman living in this 180-foot-tall redwood for 738 days in a determined effort to protect it from loggers who were attempting to cut it down.

One more amazing tree to add to this list is the Angel Oak, which can be found in Angel Oak Park, on Johns Island, South Carolina. This Southern live oak tree is considered to be one of the largest oak trees on the entire planet, with an age estimated at 400 years.

The Angel Oak (Quercus virginiana). Photo by Mike Norton, CC BY 2.0 / Flickr.

The Angel Oak reaches a height of more than 65 feet, plus it has an astonishing trunk with a circumference of about 28 feet. Subsequently, it provides shade over an area that covers some 17,200 square feet, and its longest branch measures 187 feet. Some locals simply know this wondrous oak as The Tree, solely for its imposing beauty and old age. If you happen to visit Charleston, it is the one thing not to miss.

As historical accounts suggest, the live oak stands on land that was part of Abraham Waight’s 1717 land grant. The oak tree reportedly picked up its name from when the estate was owned by a slave owner named Justus Angel and his spouse, Martha Waight Tucker Angel. As a few local stories tell it, ghosts of former slaves appeared as angels around the old oak.

The Angel Oak is one of the most beautiful and significant features of Johns Island. Photo by Greg Walters, CC BY 2.0 / Flickr.

It is a popular belief that the Angel Oak is the oldest tree east of the Mississippi River, but that’s not entirely true. Though it is a very old tree, there are still plenty of older bald cypress trees to be found across the South, some of which surpass the age of the Angel Oak by hundreds of years.

Its longest branch is 187 ft. in length. Photo by Mark Brennan, CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr.

What’s also special about the Angel Oak is that it grows both out and up, hence its remarkable height. Usually, a typical live oak would normally grow only out, not upwards. Branches of the Angel Oak extend in all directions, some even diving underground, only to re-emerge back above the surface. The tree’s trunk is immensely heavy and large too, with some dropping to the ground, which is a trait of extremely old live oaks.

It is striking in terms of its structure a well as its extreme age. Photo by Dan J, CC BY 2.0 / Flickr.

Throughout its long lifetime, the Angel Oak has been through all sorts of things: rough weather conditions, earthquakes and floods. It was actually badly damaged during Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Still, it endured and has recovered well from the hurricane.

Because of its size, it is also known as the Gentle Giant. Photo by David B. Gleason, CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr.

A more recent threat to the tree and its surrounding habitat has been that of various proposed development plans, such as a plan that, as of 2012, involved the building of a 500-unit apartment complex just 160 yards away from Angel Oak. However, the plan ended up in court thanks to the efforts of two groups, the first group being Save the Angel Oak, and the second, the Coastal Conservation League.

The tree as photographed in 2008. Photo by Galen Parks Smith, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The tree has fortunately been sitting on property that was purchased by the City of Charleston at the beginning of the 1990s. It has become one of the popular places to check out once around, plus the venue of the park is featured in a number of cultural events hosted by the city, including “An Evening under the Angel Oak” series.

Read another story from us: “The tree that owns itself” is a white oak in Athens, GA, which is widely assumed to legally own itself and the eight feet of land surrounding it

In 2000, it was honorably acknowledged as a Millennium Tree, and in 2004, it was the South Carolina Heritage Tree of the year. The Live Oak Society had this particular tree registered as the 210th within its register as well.  The Angel Oak tree is also a prominent feature in Emily Nelson’s book entitled The Heart of a Child.