The Angel Oak on Johns Island, estimated to be around 400 years old – is the most venerated of the Lowcountry’s magnificent live oaks (Quercus virginiana). While its height of 65 feet may not seem impressive, live oaks are known for their majestic spread instead of their stature. These maritime trees have evolved to withstand the forceful winds of the coast, and therefore they are usually much shorter than their extensive horizontal reach. Yet with a canopy extending nearly 2,000 square yards, the Angel Oak does not need height to astound visitors who visit its ancient, outstretched boughs.
The tree’s allure is both natural and cultural. Before her death in 1987, nationally-known Civil Rights activist Septima Clark told stories of her relationship with the oak, noting that during segregation, black families would picnic by the tree’s enormous boughs. She recalled participating in this tradition from around 1916 through 1929. At that time, it was considered sacred, and both children and adults respected the tree and its surrounding grounds.
Today, many people still revere the impressive oak and its natural community as sacred. The tree’s name can be traced back to early owners of the land, Martha and Justis Angel, though the Angel Oak property was acquired by the City of Charleston in 1991. It recently faced the threat of development and the destruction of its surrounding forest.
While the Angel Oak itself was not in danger of being felled, arborists cautioned that the forest around the tree protects its giant root system, provides shelter from storms, and affords it adequate moisture and drainage.
Importantly, it also filters harmful pollutants before they reach the tree’s roots, bark, and leaves. Thus any development surrounding the acreage that encompasses the tree could be detrimental to its survival. Many feared that the extensive residential and commercial development approved by the City of Charleston would jeopardize the tree’s safety. Motivated by this threat, local citizens brought attention to the tree’s future and helped raise enough funds to purchase 18.7 acres immediately surrounding the tree – as well as an adjacent 17-acre parcel adjacent to that.
The South Carolina Environmental Law Project deserves credit for its pro bono work in engineering these purchases, as does the Lowcountry Open Land Trust for raising nearly $7 million to purchase the land that will ultimately help protect the Angel Oak. Several private organizations, individual donors, and local governments contributed to the preservation effort, which included a $2.5 million grant from the Charleston County Greenbelt Program and a $400,000 grant from the City of Charleston. Interestingly, many argue that the land would not have cost nearly so much had the City not adopted such high-density zoning in the first place – thus making it less attractive to developers.
Other donors include schools, churches, businesses, local municipalities, conservation groups, and civic organizations. A public park and interpretive trail are being planned for the newly-acquired land. The group closed on the land on March 15, 2014, signifying a major victory for conservationists and citizens who see the lowcountry as increasingly vulnerable to development.
In addition to the peace and beauty the Angel Oak brings to its visitors, the tree has also been recognized as a 2000 Millennium Tree and as the 2004 South Carolina Heritage Tree.
The Angel Oak is located at 3688 Angel Oak Road on Johns Island. It is 12 miles from downtown Charleston and includes a gift shop and picnic areas for visitors.
Reflections on the Angel Oak
Artist Michele Levani shares: “The Angel Oak, located in Angel Oak Park on Johns Island near Charleston, SC, is one of the most incredible landmarks of the Lowcountry! As an artist, I’m always looking for creative inspiration and that next great scene or subject to paint. The Angel Oak was my latest, yet oldest muse! It’s awe-inspiring and a must for travelers to see. I’ve recently began an artistic journey of “Painting the Town”, a Youtube series, exploring new adventures of Plein Air painting featuring Lowcountry landmarks. This Angel Oak painting, “Her Majesty” was the first in my series.”