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


Warwick nature hike a chance to see rare spring wildflowers

April 9, 2014

If you live in Central Kentucky and like to get out and enjoy its unique natural landscape, you should take at least one early-spring wildflower hike along the Kentucky River Palisades.

I hiked last Saturday morning in the Jessamine Creek gorge with botanist Julian Campbell, an authority on native plants of the Inner Bluegrass and a terrific guide. Among the wildflowers we saw were tiny “Dutchman’s breeches” and a couple of rare snow trillium.

Campbell is leading another hike this Saturday morning, exploring Shantalaya, the nature preserve near the late architectural historian Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate along the Kentucky River in Mercer County. The event is sponsored by the Warwick Foundation, which now owns and cares for this remarkable Kentucky landmark property.

Below are details of Saturday’s hike (click on the image to enlarge), plus some photos from my hike last Saturday in the Jessamine Creek gorge.

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140405JessGorge0008The Jessamine Creek gorge near Wilmore.

140405JessGorge0032Julian Campbell holds a rare snow trillium

140405JessGorge0040A more common trillium

140405JessGorge0133Dutchman’s Breeches


UK shouldn’t destroy unique teaching garden with 350 species

February 11, 2014

140210MathewsGarden0009AJames Krupa, a UK biology professor, stands in the dormant, snow-covered Mathews Garden beside the now-vacant Mathews house. The garden contains about 350 species of native plants, including many rare ones. Below, a rare American elm tree stands in the garden near the College of Law building. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky doesn’t look like much in its winter dormancy, covered with snow.

Dr. James Krupa, a biology professor, says UK administrators have long complained that the garden doesn’t look like much any time of the year. But that’s not the point.

The century-old garden may be the most biologically diverse half-acre in Kentucky, Krupa said, with about 350 species of mostly native plants and trees. The garden provides a unique teaching facility, allowing students to see and compare many unusual plants that rarely grow together.

But like some of its plant species, Mathews Garden is endangered. A proposed renovation of UK’s College of Law building would destroy this unique garden, as well as two adjacent houses, built in 1900 and 1920.

When the $65 million law school renovation was announced in 2012, administrators said the project would claim both houses and the garden. Krupa said he was told recently that the garden is doomed.

But UK spokesman Jay Blanton said no decision about the fate of the garden or houses has been made and won’t be made until after state and private funding are secured for the much-needed renovation. “Those decisions would be part of the design process,” he said.

140210MathewsGarden0004AWhen the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation last month released its annual list of Central Kentucky’s most-endangered historic places, every one was owned by UK. Mathews Garden and the two adjacent houses were on the list for the second straight year. The group also complained that UK had demolished a circa 1800 house at Spindletop Farm without notice or warning.

UK trustees have approved plans to demolish several buildings designed between the 1940s and 1960s by noted architect Ernst Johnson, as well as a circa 1880 Italianate mansion, to make way for new dormitories that will be built and leased by a private contractor.

Architects have complained about the loss of the “architecturally significant” buildings, as well as poor design and construction quality of the new dormitories.

Clarence Mathews, a UK professor of botany and horticulture, created the garden in his back yard after he built a frame house at the edge of campus in 1900. Mathews’ daughter, Ruth, transferred the property to UK in 1968, but continued to live there. She died in 1986.

The Mathews house and the Ligon house next door have been used for UK offices. But the Mathews house is now vacant and showing signs of exterior decay from lack of maintenance.

Krupa said he volunteered to restore the garden in 2000. He said he began by removing 20 truckloads of honeysuckle and other invasive species.

Over the years, Krupa said he has spent countless hours and more than $41,000 in UK funds and his own money improving and maintaining the garden, which he said is used by classes with 1,500 students each year. He has added plants, trails, benches and plant identification markers.

Krupa said the garden is a living botany textbook, with every Kentucky variety of dogwood, azalea, hydrangea and viburnum and other plants. It has dozens of native wildflowers and several rare trees, including roundleaf birch, Georgia oak and striped maple.

The garden has a rare reproducing American elm tree. More than 75 percent of the once-ubiquitous American elms were lost to Dutch elm disease in the mid-20th century. Krupa thinks this may be the last one on campus.

“It’s really amazing that so many species are here in this one place,” Krupa said.

But Blanton said: “The question now is should a facility of dense undergrowth be in the center of campus or more appropriately relocated to a research tract on farms owned by the university?”

Krupa said the garden could not be relocated successfully. “Half of the biological diversity is in the soil,” he said.

Rather than expand sideways and take the garden and old houses, Krupa suggests that the law school expand back, which would displace a parking lot and a small, non-descript 1950s building.

“Administrators have always called this a weed patch,” Krupa said of Mathews Garden. “But it’s only a weed patch if you’re ignorant. I’m up against ignorance, arrogance and a lot of faculty that are afraid to take on the administration.”

For an institution of higher learning that trains many of Kentucky’s architects and historic preservation specialists, UK administrators are showing little regard for either discipline. Let’s hope they don’t flunk botany, too.

 

140210MathewsGarden0026A

The entrance to Mathews Garden. The century-old home and garden were built by Clarence Mathews, a UK botany and horticulture professor.