Trees of the Century

August 24, 2007
By

John Ruch


Gazette Photo by John Ruch A Red Oak on the Arborway, about 100 years old, recently died.

A 100-year-old dies, others thrives

PONDSIDE—On the Arborway, many red oaks planted around 1911 are standing tall amid pollution, road salt and crashing cars, straining toward their 100th birthdays.

But one red oak at the northern end of the Arborway, at the intersection with Pond and Prince streets, won’t be joining them in the celebration.

It mysteriously died this year, failing to sprout any leaves this spring, snuffed out like a 45-foot candle.

Meanwhile, 42 trees and other plants are celebrating their 100th anniversaries in the cozier confines of Arnold Arboretum—including the sweet bay magnolia just inside the main gate, overhanging the Arborway sidewalk.

No tree lives forever. But the recent birthdays and DOA are reminders that century-old trees are community resources that are both rare and hard to replace.

Death of a tree

A hundred years is a pretty good run for a red oak, all things considered.

“They start to die when they get to be about 100 years old,” said Wendy Fox, spokesperson for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which maintains the Arborway and Jamaicaway.

But, she added, it’s impossible to find an exact cause of death for the Arborway oak.

Besides age, there are huge environmental stresses on the Arborway, most of them car-related. A tree on the other side of Kelly Circle was the latest to be smashed by a crashing car that went at least several feet off the road, but the dead oak appeared to have escaped the Arborway car wars unscathed.

Compacted soil and paved surfaces are another challenge for Arborway trees. And recently, some smaller specimens may have been killed by natural gas leaks, as the Gazette previously reported.

While it may never be known what killed the tree, its postmortem fate is clear.

Fox said DCR contractor Northern Tree would fell the tree—possibly before the Gazette’s publication—and ship the logs to a processing facility in the Stoneham area.

“They grind them up and sell the chips to places that burn chips for fuel,” Fox said, adding that customers include some greenhouses and hospitals.

As for the possibility of a replacement tree, “We haven’t decided yet,” Fox said. “We’ll take a look and see.”

A tree that old has a massive root system that can prevent simple replanting and could require major street work to dig up, Fox noted.

“It could be more trouble and expense than it’s worth,” she said.

In modern times, you can’t count on a replacement tree to last even 20 percent as long as the dead centenarian, Fox said.

“Now there’s more pollution, more traffic, more everything,” she said.

At least one other old oak is dead on that stretch of the Arborway. A large specimen that must have been an acorn even earlier than 1911 stands dead, clad with only a scattering of brown leaves, at the intersection with Jamaica Place.

The good news is that many old trees that got their start in a kinder, gentler era now appear big and tough enough to survive a roadway that in many places runs right up to their trunks.

“There are some incredible individual trees,” said Sarah Freeman of the Arborway Coalition neighborhood group, which works with DCR on Arborway maintenance. “Some are fabulous.”

There are at least three very large oaks, with trunks several feet around, on the eastern side of the Arborway between Centre and St. Rose streets. There are many smaller but still impressive oaks as well—some showing signs of disease, some not.

Either way, Arborway trees appear to be getting more care and attention from DCR since Gov. Deval Patrick took office earlier this year. On the same day the Gazette observed the dead oak, DCR contractors were at work pruning trees farther down the roadway.

100 years and counting

As it is with people, so it is with trees—life is a lot easier in a loving home than it is on the streets.

Not surprisingly, Arnold Arboretum has nurtured hundreds of plants that are 100 or older.

The astonishing collection of bonsai trees—some dating to the 1700s—is the most obvious example.

But those celebrating 100 years at the arboretum this year range from white mulberry to Austrian pine to silver linden, scattered across the forested landscape.

Perhaps the most notable centenarians are two paperbark maples—an unusual Chinese species with thin, peeling bark. One stands on the Chinese Path, the other near the Bradley Garden.

As senior research scientist Peter Del Tredici explained in a recent issue of Arnoldia, the arboretum’s magazine, the trees were collected as seedlings in China in 1907.

They were then shipped to Boston and planted in the aboretum, where they are the oldest examples of the species in North America.

Indeed, the tree on the Chinese Path is the Adam and Eve of North American paperbark maples—“undoubtedly the source of the first generation” of the now-popular garden tree, according to Del Tredici. The tree still produces seedlings today.

The arboretum dates its plants from when they were added to the collection—known as “accession”—not when they were planted. So on one hand, the trees may be a bit older from growing in the wild or a greenhouse; on the other hand, they may have been in the ground at the arboretum for a shorter time than their accession date.

The accession date is on the metal dog tag that all arborteum plants bear for identification purposes. Visitors easily can check the age of their favorite tree or other plant.

The arboretum’s web site (www.arboretum.harvard.edu) offers a self-guided tour of 18 plants that are 100 or older. You can either walk the grounds and visit the plants, or click for photos and information on the interactive web site.

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