Walk among giants
Story + Photography by Michael Murphy
The Lowcountry of South Carolina is known for its iconic sprawling oak trees, with majestic limbs and sprawling canopies that seem to stretch out for miles. These trees are a vital part of the area’s rich history, standing as silent sentinels to centuries of change and progress. To open this “Iconic Issue,” board-certified master arborist Michael Murphy takes a closer look at some of the most iconic oaks in the area, exploring their unique stories and the fascinating lore that surrounds them. From the oldest documented tree in Beaufort County to a towering oak once used for trading enslaved people, these trees are more than just beautiful landmarks — they’re a window into the past and a testament to the enduring spirit of this special region.
1. Cherry Hill Plantation Live Oak
Size: 113 inches in diameter
Location: Oakview Drive off Parris Island Gateway, Port Royal
Beyond the bark: The oldest and largest documented tree in Beaufort County. It has the grave of Mary Pope, an enslaved woman, under its canopy.
2. Liberty Oak
Size: Diameter TBD
Location: 147 Lighthouse Road, Hilton Head Island
Beyond the bark: This majestic live oak, once thought to be over 350 years old, is a tree with a legacy. Under its grandiose boughs Hilton Head developer and conservationist, Charles Fraser, is laid to rest. Today a plaque dedicated to Fraser, and a bust of his image lie under the shade of the Liberty Oak, memorializing this Hilton Head visionary.
3. Secession Oak
Size: 87 inches in diameter
Location: Stock Farm Road off May River Road in Bluffton. The tree sits on private property but can be seen clearly from the road. It has suffered from major structural failures in the past two years.
Beyond the bark: Lore has it that in July 1844, under this tree, the first organized political movement with the express goal of South Carolina’s independent secession from the Union was born. The “Bluffton Movement,” as it became known, was a call to secession if the South was not guaranteed its rights to slavery, a lower tariff and states’ rights.
4. King’s Grant Live Oak
Size: 107 inches in diameter. Three other oaks on this site are 97, 91 and 81 inches in diameter.
Location: Broad River Bluff. This tree is on private property and cannot be accessed by the public.
Beyond the bark: In 1705 William Hazzard came from England and received a King’s Grant of 500 acres of land on a high bluff overlooking the Broad River. After serving as a colonel in the Beaufort Militia, he died and was buried on his plantation. This tree is a visual example of reaction wood that healthy trees produce to compensate for structural defects. Reaction wood is five times stronger than normal wood.
5. Squire Pope Live Oak
Size: 96 inches in diameter
Location: Northeast corner of Squire Pope Road and U.S. 278, Hilton Head Island
Beyond the bark: It is one of the eight largest-diameter trees in Beaufort County. The furrows and undulations of its trunk circumference are telltale signs that this tree could be made up of multiple trunk sprouts that re-grew from the cut stump hundreds of years ago after the original tree was cut down by shipbuilders.
6. Tailbird Live Oak
Size: 64 inches in diameter
Location: Outerbridge Circle, Hilton Head Plantation
Beyond the bark: In 1781 a royal militia on Daufuskie Island was instructed to burn the homes of known patriots between Beaufort and Savannah. When they arrived at Tailbird Plantation, Tailbird’ s nine-month pregnant wife faced the officer in charge, who was her brother-in-law. He allowed her to move all the household goods out of the plantation house and place them under the spreading branches of a giant live oak about 100 yards from the main house before burning the house down. This tree was once thought to be the oldest tree on Hilton Head Island.
7. Okatie Corners Oak
Size: 65 inches in diameter
Location: Southeastern area of the intersection of Highway 170 and U.S. 278, Bluffton
Beyond the bark: This area was once known as “Land’s End,” the end of the paved-road system in old Bluffton. Children of the era gathered under this tree on election day to watch for the sheriff to come to town, as he had one of the few motor cars of the day.
8. Pope Hunting Club
Size: 93 inches in diameter
Location: East side of Highway 170 between Davis Road and the Okatie River
Beyond the bark: No specific history, but at 93 inches it is one of the eight largest single-trunked trees in Beaufort County, measured during the Beaufort Three-Century Project in 2009.
9. First Presbyterian Church tree
Size: 78 inches in diameter
Location: In the parking lot of 540 William Hilton Parkway, Hilton Head
Beyond the bark: This tree was once thought to be the largest single-trunked tree on Hilton Head. This tree has old interior burn scars, possibly set by early resident raccoon hunters to smoke out their prey. It’s an excellent example of how a tree creates reaction wood.
10. Rose Hill Trading Tree
Size: 66 inches in diameter
Location: 2 Hidden Lake Drive, Rose Hill Plantation, Bluffton. The tree is on private property but can be seen from the street where North Lake Road ends at Hidden Lakes Circle.
Beyond the bark: This tree sits in the backyard of a private residence in Rose Hill Plantation. There are remnants of an old tabby wall underneath. It is known as the “Trade Tree.” Enslaved people were traded underneath its canopy for the working plantations of Rose Hill and Belfair. How big was it 180 years ago to have been a congregating place for what was then an important, yet regretful, part of our agricultural history?