I grew up near Alexandria, Va., where local history is American history and there are at least 16 historical sites connected in one way or another to George Washington.
Now I discover that I can make my own connection to George Washington. I can plant a sapling in my backyard that was germinated from the seed of a tree that Washington planted himself at Mt. Vernon. In fact, the sapling that I can plant will look exactly like the one that he planted 220 years ago to shade the walkway around the newly constructed bowling green he built on the backside of his mansion for his own amusement and the pleasure of his guests.
The Historic Tree Nursery in Jacksonville, Fla., sells the George Washington. The nursery is a division of American Forests, the oldest conservation organization in the country. The nursery collects and germinates seeds from about 600 of the more than 2,500 trees listed on the “American Forests’ National Register of Historic Trees.”
Some of the trees on the registry are remarkable simply because they are very big or very ancient (a few are more than 1,000 years old). But most of the ones listed are historically significant because they were planted by an important person in an important place (Andrew Jackson’s Southern Magnolia at the White House) or “witnessed” an important event (Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address) or they stand in the yard of a house where a famous person once lived (Walt Disney).
If the idea of planting some history in your backyard doesn’t immediately grab you, you’ll be convinced after reading “America’s Famous and Historic Trees,” by Jeff Meyer, the man who started the Historic Tree Nursery in 1987. Meyer, the host of PBS’s “Tree Stories,” and the owner of a tree nursery in Jacksonville for nearly 25 years, has been planting trees since he was five years old.
In his book, Meyer’s passion is both evident and contagious. The trees are magnificent looking; they provide a concrete connection to the past that is usually overlooked, and his choices present a surprisingly broad mosaic of American history. Not only does he include the Berkeley Plantation sycamore under which “Taps” was first played and the Jacksonville “Live Treaty Oak,” which inspired him to start the Historic Tree Nursery. He also includes trees whose brushes with history are recent–for example, a pin oak from Graceland (yes, the Graceland).
Meyer also explains that cultivating the offspring of historic trees often requires more-than-careful tending of tree seeds. For example, collecting a sufficient quantity of viable seeds from George Washington’s tulip poplar required artificial pollination because the tree is now too high for most bees to find the blossoms and pollinate them naturally. When the tulip flowers appeared one spring, they were fertilized with pollen cast by a professional pollinator who hovered above the tree in a cherry picker.
To propagate Johnny Appleseed’s last-known living tree, Meyer grafted several branches from Johnny’s tree onto the rootstock of other apple trees. Though the grafting process is unfamiliar to most people today, it has been used by apple growers for centuries because it is the only way to ensure that you will produce apples that are identical to those of the parent tree. A peculiarity of apples is that when the seeds of a given tree are planted, the resulting trees will not produce the same apples. They will markedly differ and can even be sour.
Since Meyer first collected the buds from Johnny’s tree in 1994, he has grafted more than 10,000 saplings. The apples are thought to be Rambos, a common dessert apple in Johnny’s time, and they have a tart flavor similar to a Granny Smith. In a recent interview, Meyer said that he is currently seeking a partner to help him grow the apples commercially.
Aside from the Johnny Appleseed tree, which has been propagated by grafting, and a few other trees, which are propagated from cuttings because they are male trees and don’t produce seeds, Meyer said that the Historic Tree Nursery periodically collects seeds from each of the historic trees (or its offspring if the original tree has died) that it sells.
Moving from the broad panorama of America’s trees to what historic saplings you might plant in your own yard, Meyer said that climate should be your first consideration. As you peruse the Historic Tree Nursery Web site, www.historictrees.org, check the simplified version of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s hardiness-zone map given in the detailed description of each tree to see if it will thrive in your area.
Your next consideration should be the eventual size of the tree and what will fit in your yard. In older neighborhoods, this is rarely a problem, but in most new subdivisions now, the lots are small with as little as 10 feet between houses on the side and often only 30 to 50 feet between houses at the back.
Assuming that you can elicit the cooperation of your neighbor to the back, Meyer said you could plant almost any tree on the lot line, without fear that it would cause any problems down the road. If you want something that will grow to be large and tall and shade a large area, he recommended sycamores, oaks, and poplars. The Historic Tree Nursery offers a wide range of choices–98 sycamores, 20 poplars and 363 oaks–and there is at least one for every climate zone in the United States, said Meyer’s colleague Susan Corbett.
If a shaded deck or patio is your prime concern for your back yard, a sapling of a smaller tree that only grows to be about 20 feet tall, such as a dogwood or a red bud would be a good choice, Corbett said.
Narrow side yards can be problematic because they receive little direct sun. When the houses are two stories, the tree crowns must be narrow to avoid hitting them. In these cases, your best bet is a tall and narrow evergreen tree that does well in shade, like a cypress, Corbett said. A row of these can also act as a privacy screen, she added. If your new house will be nestled among one-story ranches, you have many more choices for a side yard and Corbett suggested a tree with an upward branching pattern, such as a maple or an ash.
Front yards are generally less confining for trees because the yard usually adjoins a sidewalk and the street, leaving plenty of room for a tree’s crown to spread out. Corbett said that a great choice, if you live in the right climate zone, would be Elvis’ pin oak, which has a short trunk and a broad, sweeping crown.
If you’re eager to get some foliage and shade for your yard and want a fast-growing tree, Meyer recommended a sycamore or a tulip poplar.
Choosing the right tree for your climate and the size of your yard is just the first step, however. Meyer said the success of your tree will also depend on how conscientiously you water it and how well you prepare the soil. Before you buy anything, he advises getting a soil sample tested at your local agricultural extension office because the results will help you determine what soil preparation is necessary and what trees are compatible with your soil.
Another factor that will affect the growth of your tree is how often you fertilize it. You can do this only once a year, but Meyer said that giving a quarter of the dose four times a year will make your tree grow faster. In Jacksonville, where he lives, he said that a 3-foot tree fertilized four times a year would be taller in five years than a 15-foot tree planted at the same time, but fertilized only once a year. In more temperate areas of the country, the growth rate will not be as pronounced, but Corbett said that fertilizing four times a year will definitely speed up the process.
Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.
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