New book explains history, mystery of the Bluegrass’ ancient trees

October 17, 2015
This bur oak on Gainesway Farm near Lexington is thought to be several hundred years old, pre-dating the first white pioneers and settlers in Central Kentucky. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

This bur oak on Gainesway Farm near Lexington is thought to be several hundred years old, pre-dating the first white pioneers and settlers in Central Kentucky. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Most of us pay little attention to Kentucky’s oldest living residents. They are huge, but to the untrained eye they seem to just blend into the landscape.

Central Kentucky and Middle Tennessee may be the only places on Earth with this unique assortment of centuries-old bur, chinkapin and Shumard oak, blue ash and Kingnut hickory trees.

When Daniel Boone blazed his trail into the Bluegrass in 1775, many of the same trees we see today were already here, and big enough to offer him shade.

We seem to know little about how to care for and preserve these rare trees, which are rapidly disappearing from the landscape. But with Tom Kimmerer’s new book, Venerable Trees: History, Biology and Conservation in the Bluegrass (University Press of Kentucky, $39.95), we can know a lot more.

Kimmerer is a forest scientist, former University of Kentucky professor and one of only two tree physiologists in the state. Now a consultant, science journalist and photographer, he founded a Lexington-based non-profit organization, also called Venerable Trees. It seeks to protect these old-growth species and promote the planting of native trees in the region.

While deeply grounded in science, this book is written with a general audience in mind. It is easy to understand and filled with interesting information and stories, plus useful maps, illustrations and dozens of Kimmerer’s beautiful photographs of the trees.

Tom Kimmerer, a Lexington forest scientist and author of the book, Venerable Trees. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Tom Kimmerer

Kimmerer explains why this mix of old trees is found only in the Inner and Outer Bluegrass regions of Kentucky and the Nashville Basin region of Middle Tennessee.

While some of these trees were part of forests, most grew up in pastures above deep limestone deposits. The largest remaining specimens are about 7 feet in diameter and more than 100 feet tall. Many are between 300 and 500 years old.

Why did these trees thrive here? For one thing, Kimmerer writes, crevices in the underground limestone allowed the trees’ roots to grow deep to reach groundwater and survive periodic droughts.

Another reason is that huge herds of bison once roamed the Bluegrass, before they were hunted to near extinction in the early 1800s. The bison’s periodic grazing helped keep the woodland pastures from becoming forests.

Early Kentucky settlers wrote about the enormous trees they found, many of which they cut down to build their structures. Lexington’s first building, a blockhouse where the downtown Hilton is now, was made from a giant bur oak felled by 21-year-old Josiah Collins in April 1779.

While settlement and development decimated many North American forests, hundreds of giant trees in Bluegrass pastures were kept to shade livestock or decorate the estates of wealthy landowners.

That explains Lexington’s many urban specimens. The finest collection of venerable trees is in Lexington Cemetery, where they have been nurtured since the 1850s. These trees escaped the fate of hundreds more like them cut down by 20th century real estate developers.

151018VenTrees001Kimmerer tells the story of what he calls the St. Joe Oak. It is the largest of what was once a grove of ancient trees that between the 1950s and 1970s became the St. Joseph Hospital complex. After neighbors protested plans to cut down the huge bur oak, it was surrounded by a concrete parking structure that may yet kill it.

But the author offers a hopeful example of how builders are beginning to view these distinctive trees as neighborhood signatures and amenities rather than obstacles.

Ball Homes hired Kimmerer to develop a preservation plan for what he calls the Schoolhouse Oak, a bur oak about 500 years old that dominates a hill over Harrodsburg Road at South Elkhorn Creek. Previous development plans for that property by other companies had called for the tree’s destruction.

Efforts to reproduce these tree species have met little success for many reasons, including urbanization and a lack of modern herds of grazing bison. Climate change will make this even more difficult.

Kimmerer offers good suggestions for preserving our venerable trees and replacing them with these and other native species that are more suitable than what is often planted.

Venerable Trees will likely become a classic among books about Kentucky’s natural history and environment, because it covers so much new information in such an accessible way.

These magnificent trees are as much a part of the Bluegrass landscape as horses, rock walls and four-plank fences. Whether or not you paid much attention to them before, this book will give you a greater appreciation of Kentucky’s oldest living residents.

If you go

Venerable Trees

What: Author Tom Kimmerer discusses and signs his book

When: 2 p.m., Oct. 18

Where: The Morris Bookshop, 882 East High Street.

More information: Venerabletrees.org