(The Bayou Lafourche Gem Oak is located on the bayou side of the road at 521 LA Highway 308. This is south of Thibodaux.)
According to current Gem Oak owner Sally Marshall Masterson, the tree is named after her father whose initials were G.E.M – George E. Marshall.
The oak was registered with the Live Oak Society (#4245) with a girth of just under 15 feet. In November of 2016, its girth was 20 feet, 1 inch. This relatively fast growth is not unusual for a live oak that has fertile soil, regular access to water, and little competition for sunlight from other nearby trees. It’s one of the reasons that estimating the age of an old oak can be challenging. This oak tree is likely between 150 and 200 years of age (if you assume that an oak with a girth of 17 feet would be 100 years of age or older).
When the Louisiana delta was formed, natural ridges were created along the banks of rivers and bayous from the silt deposited by annual flooding (usually in the spring). These natural ridges sloped away from the banks of the bayou into the lower-lying swampland. Many of the oldest oaks along Bayou Lafourche would have taken root on this fertile flood plain.
As immigrants began to settle the area along the bayou, they established farms and built houses on strips of fertile ground close to the bayou. With these early settlements, each landowner was required by law to maintain the natural levee that connected their property to the bayou. Breaks in the levee, called crevasses, were a constant fear. The same rising water that fed the surrounding land with rich sediment and supported settlers’ crops also threatened to wash those crops away.
After a very large flood and break in the levee above Thibodaux in 1903, local residents petitioned the state government to build a dam in Donaldsonville at the mouth of the bayou to protect against future floods. Once this dam was constructed, many of the levees along the length of Bayou Lafourche were removed, so the Bayou Lafourche Gem Oak likely sprouted (or was planted) sometime after 1903.
The Lafourche Live Oak Tour was created through the generous support of Louisiana’s Cajun Bayou Tourism. For more information on Lafourche Parish events and activities, visit their website at LACajunBayou.com.