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Do live oak trees change color in the fall?

The changing of leaf colors is one of the most anticipated parts of autumn for many people. However, not all tree species put on the same colorful display. Live oak trees, for example, are known for retaining their green leaves through the fall and winter months.

Live oaks (Quercus virginiana) are large evergreen oak trees native to the southeastern United States. They are prized for their beauty, shade, and drought tolerance. Unlike deciduous oak trees, live oaks keep their waxy, dark green leaves year-round. This gives them a distinctive appearance compared to the trees around them which lose their leaves in fall.

While live oak leaves may yellow or brown a bit at the tips or edges as winter approaches, they do not change color in the dramatic way that maple, oak, and other deciduous trees do in autumn. The mature leathery live oak leaves are adapted to survive the winter months in the warm southern climates where live oaks thrive.

Why Live Oak Leaves Stay Green in Fall

There are a few key reasons why live oak trees don’t change color in autumn like other trees:

  • They are evergreen – Live oaks keep their leaves year-round rather than shedding all their leaves in fall and growing new ones in spring. This evergreen habit allows them to photosynthesize even in winter.
  • Leaf composition – The leathery live oak leaves contain waxes and oils that help them retain moisture during droughts. These also keep the leaves from drying out and changing color in fall and winter.
  • Mild climate – Live oaks mainly grow in the warm Southeastern states where winters are mild. The lack of harsh freezes allows them to keep their leaves green.
  • Slower leaf turnover – Live oaks replace their leaves more slowly over 2-3 years. Deciduous trees replace all leaves rapidly each spring, resulting in more dramatic autumn color change.

Where are Live Oak Trees Found?

Live oak trees grow naturally in the warm, coastal regions of the Southeastern United States from Virginia to Florida and west to Texas. They thrive in zones 8-11. Some key areas where live oaks commonly grow include:

State Notable Areas
Texas Houston, Austin, Dallas
Louisiana New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette
Mississippi Jackson, Biloxi
Alabama Mobile, Daphne, Spanish Fort
Georgia Savannah, Valdosta, Augusta
South Carolina Charleston, Myrtle Beach
North Carolina Wilmington, Jacksonville
Virginia Norfolk, Virginia Beach
Florida Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando, Miami

Live oaks are signature trees in many southern cities and towns. Their sprawling branches draped in Spanish moss are iconic symbols of the South.

Typical Live Oak Fall/Winter Appearance

While they don’t turn bright colors, live oak trees do change subtly through fall and winter. Here’s what to expect:

  • October – Leaves remain glossy green, no coloring occurs.
  • November – Some yellowing/browning of leaf edges and tips possible, but overall still green.
  • December – Leaves perhaps a bit duller green but little leaf loss. Mild leaf drop may occur.
  • January/February – In colder winters, some browning increases but leaves mostly persist.
  • March – Tree rapidly greens up as new leaves emerge while old leaves are slowly shed.

So while live oak leaves get a bit drab during mid-winter, the transformations are subtle compared to the brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows on maples and other deciduous trees in fall. Live oaks generally keep at least half their leaves through the winter before new leaf flushes in spring.

Why Do Deciduous Trees Change Color?

Understanding why deciduous trees undergo such radical color changes in fall helps explain why live oaks don’t. Here’s a quick overview:

  • In fall, decreasing daylight and colder weather cause deciduous trees to stop producing chlorophyll, the green pigment that performs photosynthesis.
  • This causes other color pigments like carotenoids (yellows) and anthocyanins (reds) that were masked by chlorophyll to now be revealed.
  • These pigments create the fall leaf colors as chlorophyll fades. Reds and purples result from sugars trapped in the leaves.
  • The trees then form an abscission layer to cut off nutrients to the leaves, and the leaves are shed to conserve energy over winter.

Because live oaks keep their leaves year-round and don’t have this hard cutoff of resources in fall, they don’t undergo the same color changes. Their continuing production of chlorophyll keeps leaves green.

Other Evergreen Trees That Stay Green

Live oaks aren’t the only evergreen trees that retain green leaves through fall and winter. Here are a few other examples:

  • Southern magnolia – Another classic southern tree with large, waxy green leaves and fragrant white blooms that persist into winter.
  • Cedar – Cedar trees like redcedar and white cedar keep needle-like leaves year-round.
  • Pine – Pine needles typically stay on trees for 18-24 months before being shed.
  • Spruce – Spruce, fir, and other conifers maintain green needle foliage even in harsh northern winters.
  • Holly – Hollies are prized for their ability to stay green with red berries into winter, a hallmark Christmas combo.

So while they won’t be winning any awards for fall foliage, live oaks and other evergreens provide reliable greenery when most deciduous trees are bare.

Do Live Oaks Lose Their Leaves?

Live oaks are excellent at retaining most of their leaves year-round, especially compared to deciduous trees. However, they do gradually lose some old leaves and grow new leaves over time. Here’s a look at their leaf cycle:

  • Spring – New light green leaves emerge while some old leaves are shed.
  • Summer – Foliage is thickest with dark green mature leaves.
  • Fall/winter – Leaves gradually yellow, dry, and drop, but most remain into winter.
  • The process occurs slowly over 2-3 years as leaves age and are replaced.
  • Live oaks can lose up to half their leaves over winter in colder locations.

So while live oak leaves may turn brown and fall off occasionally in late fall/winter, it happens slowly and doesn’t cause the drastic bare look of deciduous trees in winter. Live oaks generally keep a healthy cover of leaves year-round.

Fun Facts About Live Oak Trees

Beyond their evergreen nature, live oak trees have other neat features:

  • Live oaks can live for over 200 years. Some historic specimens are over 400 years old.
  • Their strong wood was valued for shipbuilding in the 19th century.
  • Live oaks have stout, widespreading branches perfect for draping Spanish moss.
  • They provide excellent shade with their canopy reaching up to 150 feet wide.
  • Live oaks are symbols of strength and perseverance. They withstand storms, floods, and drought.
  • Many southern towns and cities have iconic old live oak specimens in parks and public squares.


While live oak trees don’t display the brillant fall foliage colors seen on maple and other deciduous trees, they contribute year-round greenery in southern landscapes. Their evergreen nature allows them to keep their leaves through fall and winter while slowly replacing them over time.

So next time you’re admiring the autumn colors, look around for the live oaks staying steadfastly green. It’s this ability to retain their leaves in the winter months that gives live oaks their name and makes them an icon of the southern United States.