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


Forester’s new non-profit aims to save ancient Bluegrass trees

October 5, 2013

An ancient blue ash tree on a Fayette County horse farm.  Photo by Tom Kimmerer

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.”

Tom Kimmerer. Photo by Tom Eblen

Tom Kimmerer.   Photo by Tom Eblen

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.”