Monarch of the Lowcountry

Angel Oak on John’s Island, the envy of any Tolkien Ent.

No one would drive 154 miles to see a tree. Right? Wrong. Down on John’s Island you can see a Southern live oak estimated to be between 500 and 1,500 years old, one of the oldest living things east of the Mississippi River. Most expert estimates place Angel Oak’s age at 1,500 years, but precisely determining this monarch’s age is difficult because heart rot prevents coring (counting growth rings just isn’t possible).

Want to see this Millennium Tree, this 2004 South Carolina Heritage Tree? Then make a day trip to John’s Island. It’s been said this giant tree and its outspread limbs appears angelic, thus its name. Local legends also maintain that ghosts of former slaves appear as angels around the tree; but neither is how it got its name. No, its name comes from its long-ago owners, Martha and Justus Angel.

To be sure, old Angel Oak is a modern marvel. That the tree exists is a miracle. A visitor from New England, emotionally moved upon seeing the ancient tree, wrote, “It is hard to believe that over the years, man has not found a reason to get rid of this old tree. The fact that it is still around and lovingly tended gives me hope.” Well put.

When you walk the grounds around Angel Oak you walk in the footsteps of early settlers and ancestors of the Gullah. Over the years, the 65-foot-high tree has grown out more than up. And over the years its 17,000-square-feet of shade surely has shielded a legion of Lowcountry denizens from the blazing Southern sun. Visitors take note: You cannot approach too closely or climb the tree’s graceful arching limbs, many as big as full-grown oaks themselves (the largest limb has a circumference of over 11 feet).

Angel Oak possesses those iconic images that proclaim, “You’re in the classic Lowcountry.” To see the majestic oak is to conjure up Lowcountry swamps, blackwater rivers and Spanish moss. Angel Oak and the Lowcountry go together like William Faulkner and Mississippi, like Sidney Lanier and the Marshes of Glynn, like shrimp and grits. You won’t find an antebellum movie about South Carolina that doesn’t show live oaks draped with Spanish moss. In fact, the Lowcountry’s image is forever framed by moss-draped oaks and cypress, and Angel Oak, the star of stars, holds court over them all.

Revered and held sacred, Angel Oak is a tree for the ages. It’ll hold you in a spell. Finally, when your sojourn at Angel Oak is over, Charleston is just 13 miles away. There’s much to see and do down here. Just one favor before you go: The city of Charleston owns and maintains Angel Oak and its park. Buy something at the Angel Oak gift shop or leave a donation to help protect this tree so vital to all.

 If You Go …

Angel Oak Park

Free Admission

3688 Angel Oak Road

John’s Island, S.C. 29945

843-559-3496

Driving Distance: 154 miles

Driving Time: 2 hours 44 minutes

Learn more about Tom Poland, a Southern writer, and his work at www.tompoland.net. Email day-trip ideas to him at [email protected]