Coleen Perilloux Landry will do just about anything to save a tree—from calling a governor to pulling a gun.
As a girl in the tiny town of Montz in St. Charles Parish, Coleen Perilloux Landry was on intimate terms with trees. She grew up on a three hundred-acre sugarcane plantation and lived in a house surrounded by live oaks. “One tree in particular my mother loved,” said Landry, who today divides her time between the house in Montz and a home in Metairie. “It was directly behind the house. My dad hung a swing on one of the branches. They’d put me on it and push me way up high. It’s a whole different world up there, total freedom. You can imagine what a bird’s life is like. That feeling has never left me.”
Today, as chairman of the Louisiana Live Oak Society, Landry is “the only human member” of an organization dedicated to preserving the trees and ensuring their health and longevity. Chairman since 2000, she has personally registered 3,431 oaks. “That’s almost double what it was when I took over,” she said. “It takes twenty minutes to register each one. That’s a lot of volunteer work.”
The Society was founded in 1934 by Edwin Lewis Stephens, the first president of Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). It began with forty-three members chosen by Stephens. Now, under the auspices of the Louisiana Garden Club Federation, it boasts 7,197 members in fourteen states.
The Society promotes the culture, distribution, preservation, and appreciation of the southern live oak (Quercus virginiana), an evergreen tree native to the southeastern United States. All of the officers—the president and vice presidents—are trees.The first president was the Locke Breaux Oak in Taft, a three hundred-year-old tree that lost its life in 1968. “All these chemical companies came in, and I don’t think proper regulations were in place,” said Landry. “Groundwater pollution and air pollution killed that oak.”
The president of the society is now the Seven Sisters Oak in Lewisburg in St. Tammany Parish. It is recognized as the largest certified live oak, with a girth of thirty-eight feet. The Louisiana Forestry Association estimates it is more than 1,200 years o ld; it is believed to be the oldest North American live oak. “People come from all over the world to see it,” said Landry.
One tree Landry is proud to have saved is Old Dickory in Harahan in Jefferson Parish. Back in 2003, it was scheduled to be bulldozed to make way for an extension of Dickory Avenue. When Landry got wind of those plans, she swung into action.
“When I came upon it, they had already spray-painted a big red X on it, which means ‘cut down,’” she said. “I took a picture of it and sent it to Governor [Mike] Foster.”
In her letter to Foster, Landry wrote, “There is much interest in the community about saving this tree, thought to be 600-800 years old. The construction project is still in the planning stages[.]. . . [M]oving the road several feet over may save this magnificent tree. It has sat for all these years ‘in its forest primeval’ furnishing food and shelter for animals and beauty for people. It would be a sin to destroy such a symbol of endurance.”
Foster, whose antebellum home Oaklawn, near Franklin, is surrounded by live oaks—seventeen of which are members of the Society—got the message.
“Governor Foster told DOTD [Department of Transportation and Development] to stop the road,” said Landry. “They were two blocks away from the tree when they rerouted the road, which is a state highway. The [Army] Corps of Engineers was coming through with pumps. I told them about tunneling under the tree, and that’s what they did.
“Then the developer needed a variance to put in more houses than the parish allowed. I negotiated with him to donate three quarters of an acre, where Old Dickory sits, to Jefferson Parish to be kept forever as a public space. It’s still thriving. I go over every once in a while to check on it. The birds and the squirrels love it.”
Nine months after Landry wrote to the governor, the parish held a dedication ceremony for Old Dickory. “Randy Roux, a priest who had played in that tree as a boy, gave the blessing,” said Landry. “He even had a stole made, with live oaks embroidered on it, to wear that day.
“[Jefferson Parish Sheriff] Harry Lee had told me we would never save that tree, so he threw a party for the dedication. He furnished the food, and he recited the [Joyce Kilmer] poem about ‘only God can make a tree’.”
Old Dickory is now a member of the Live Oak Society. To qualify, a tree must have a girth of at least eight feet, measured four feet from the base. The owner gets to name the tree. There is no charge for registration, but the Society accepts donations.
Although you’d never guess it to look at her, the tall, blonde, elegantly dressed Landry is a retired Jefferson Parish police officer who spent twenty-seven years on the force.
“I have got myself into tons of trouble fighting for oaks,” she says. “I have threatened people. Our garden club had collected money to buy oaks and shrubbery to plant at the entrance to Bissonet Plaza subdivision [in Metairie]. About fifteen years later, the Jefferson Parish DPW [Department of Public Works] was out there cutting the trees. The workers were cutting the limbs so they could get riding mowers under there. That’s the mentality of a lot of people. If it might be in the way they cut it. They had already done some damage when I found out about it. I went over there with my pistol in my hand.
“It wasn’t exactly a situation to pull a gun in, but the workers stopped. I got the DPW boss to come out. He realized those oaks should not be cut.”
Word of Landry’s gun-toting standoff quickly got back to her boss, Sheriff Al Cronvich, who suspended her for a week. But Landry was unruffled.
“Anything worth having is worth fighting for,” she said. “Not everybody has the right to do just anything. I’ve had contractors say, ‘We’re going to take down this tree and plant two trees in its place.’ But that doesn’t replace what is lost.
“Everything has to live on this earth together. Trees are places for animals to live in; they provide carbon dioxide; and they save energy with their shade.”
Landry also dispenses advice to owners who suffer the whacking of their live oaks by utility companies.
“People call me when Entergy is trimming their trees,” she said. “I tell them to ask for a supervisor. If the supervisor doesn’t satisfy you, ask to meet with Entergy’s tree man. A lot of the crews they hire don’t know what they are doing. They just hack. I have been out to these sites and asked them to stop. I think they are required to do that. They can’t just keep hacking away. They have to get a tree supervisor out there.”
Landry is also involved in Jefferson Parish’s annual “tree school.” This one-day workshop teaches about the care and preservation of the tree canopy in the urban landscape. It is open to the public and even comes with a free lunch.
“We get different arborists from around the country to give it,” said Landry. “We always have a full auditorium. Arborists and developers get continuing-education credit for it.”
Meanwhile Landry is always on the lookout for new oaks to add to the Society registry. When she spots a likely candidate, she knocks on the homeowner’s door and asks to sponsor the tree.
“I’ve been after LSU to register all their oaks,” she said. “I’m thinking there’s about a thousand of them on the campus.”
In the face of growing development, when the words “pave paradise and put up a parking lot” have never seemed more prescient, what inspires such passion? To Landry, it’s a no-brainer.
“Every living thing needs to be respected,” she explained. “If we don’t start preserving our ancient live oaks in Louisiana, we are going to lose some beauty that will never come back. If we don’t save what we have, it’ll be gone forever.”
Ruth Laney has registered two live oaks that she named for her grandmothers. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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To check out the Lousiana Live Oak Society, go to lgcfinc.org/live-oak-society.html.