An ancient blue ash tree on a Fayette County horse farm. © Photo by Tom Kimmerer
What makes Central Kentucky’s landscape unique? Rolling pastures. Grazing horses. Stacked-stone walls. Four-plank fences. Antebellum mansions. Black tobacco barns.
But one distinctive feature is often overlooked: centuries-old trees.
Many of the enormous oak, hickory and ash trees scattered throughout the Bluegrass were here before Daniel Boone ever heard of Kentucky, much less explored it in the mid-1700s.
“I believe that we have more old, pre-settlement trees than any other urban and agricultural landscape in the country,” said Tom Kimmerer, a tree physiologist with a doctorate in forestry and botany.
But these leafy giants are rapidly disappearing, and Kimmerer thinks neglect and mismanagement are as much to blame as developers’ chainsaws.
“As we lose these trees,” he said, “I think we lose an important characteristic of the Bluegrass.”
Kimmerer is writing and photographing a book to raise awareness of these trees, many of which are more than 300 years old. He also is creating a non-profit organization, Venerable Trees Inc., to identify remaining specimens, research the best ways to take care of them and teach landowners how to do it.
“I believe that these trees could easily live another 500 years, many of them,” he said. “We know that some oaks can live beyond 1,000 years.”
Kimmerer has created a webpage (Venerabletrees.org/locate) for citizens to report “venerable” trees they know of. He will have a workshop Oct. 12 at Floracliff Nature Preserve for people wanting to know more about these trees. Details: Venerabletrees.org/classes.
And because many slow-growth tree varieties do not reproduce well naturally in an increasingly urbanized environment, Kimmerer hopes to propagate seedlings branded as progeny of some of Lexington’s most iconic specimens.
“I would like people in the Bluegrass to identify with these trees more,” he said. “So instead of just planting any old thing you can get from the nursery, we develop a tradition of planting our native trees, because they are so magnificent and so long-lived.”
When settlers arrived in Central Kentucky in the 1770s, they found a unique landscape with fields of cane and grass dotted with bur, shumard and chinkapin oaks, blue ash and a hickory they called kingnut, shellbark or shagbark.
“These old trees were kept because settlers had compelling reasons to keep them,” Kimmerer said, noting that they helped shade livestock pastures and decorate the estates of wealthy landowners.
There is no way to tell the age of a tree by looking at it; a core sample must be drilled and growth rings counted. It is a time-consuming process. But very old trees give visual clues: cylindrical, rather than tapered, trunks; stout, twisted branch patterns; tufted groups of leaves at the ends of branches.
Not all giant trees here are very old. For example, there are many huge sycamores, but Kimmerer thinks they came after settlement when much of the cane had been grazed off. Scientists know that many of the large ginkgo trees around Lexington descend from Japanese specimens Henry Clay planted at his Ashland estate.
Many old-growth trees have been lost to suburban development. A 1950 survey of bur oaks in Fayette County found about 400. A similar survey in 1978 found 180. When Kimmerer replicated the survey last spring, he found 43. (However, he found about that many more by surveying along roads built since 1950).
A few years ago, Kimmerer found the most magnificent blue ash he had ever seen at a development site off Winchester Road. It had survey markers around it, which he thought meant the developer was planning to keep it. When he returned a few days later, the giant tree was a pile of mulch.
Some people take down old-growth trees because they incorrectly think they are dying and could pose a liability. Blue ash usually continue to thrive despite dead tops or hollow spots from lightning strikes. Even the emerald ash borer, a beetle now decimating many varieties of ash, usually doesn’t kill blue ash, Kimmerer said.
He recalled talking with a farmer who thought his damaged blue ash needed to be cut down. “I told him, yea, I doubt it’s got more than 300 good years left,” he said. “He was surprised.”
Because Lexington’s venerable trees are living historical markers, they often are found in what now seem like odd places. Kimmerer took me to one such tree along South Broadway, in front of an Avis rental car office. Previously, it was part of the vast lawn of Ingleside, a mansion built in 1852 and demolished in 1964.
Another example is the huge bur oak surrounded by a parking deck at the medical office complex across Harrodsburg Road from St. Joseph Hospital. It was the largest of a grove of bur oaks there as late as the 1950s. Only public outcry kept it from being cut down.
Kimmerer said some Lexington builders now realize that preserving these trees can create valuable amenities for their developments. Ball Homes kept a giant bur oak, the Blackford Oak, in a development near Hamburg. The neighborhood is called Blackford Oaks.
Many ancient trees have been saved from the chainsaw only to decline and die because landowners neglect or mismanage them.
“In England, where they have a long tradition of taking care of old trees, they have a huge manual for managing what they call veteran trees,” Kimmerer said. “We need something comparable to that. We know that good care can make a big difference.”
The most frequent problem Kimmerer sees is old trees whose lives are being shortened by compacted soil and the use of herbicides and fertilizer around them. “You would think fertilizer would be good for trees,” he said. “But the faster a tree grows, the shorter its lifetime.”
Kimmerer said landowners could learn a lot about managing old-growth trees from Keeneland, the Kentucky Horse Park, several area horse farms and neighborhood associations such as Squire Oak.
Perhaps the best local steward, he said, is Lexington Cemetery. Begun in 1849 in a grove of old-growth trees, the cemetery has been nurturing and planting bur oaks and other native varieties ever since. The beautiful cemetery uses no herbicides and little fertilizer, and its ancient trees are thriving.
Kimmerer hopes Venerable Trees Inc. can have a big impact on preservation efforts, because many old-growth trees are in the areas near Hamburg now slated for development. With good planning, those ancient trees could survive and thrive as neighborhood icons for generations.
“There are so few of these trees left now,” Kimmerer said. “We need to be more conscious of them and do more to preserve them.”