Home Is Where Your Trees Are

Trees As Futures. Part 1

Twelve years is a ripe age for a dog or cat, eighteen for a cow, twenty-five for a horse, thirty for a mule, sixty for an elephant. Modern medicine has extended man's life expectancy to about seventy-five years. Certain parrots, tamed wild geese, and snapping turtles are said to have lived 150 years and more. In comparison to such brief life spans, many trees are "immortal." It took Donna in September 1960 - one of the worse hurricanes in recorded U.S. weather history - finally to lay low the Thorndale Oak, a red giant at Millbrook, N.Y., measuring 24 feet 9 inches in girth, whose age was gauged at 353 years. The acorn whence this tree grew apparently sprouted some seasons before the Dutch first sailed up the nearby Hudson River in 1610.

The Thorndale Oak was rated in 1941 by the American Forestry Association as the largest of its species in the United States, and at 353 years it may also have become the oldest. Even so, as trees go, it was but a middling oldster. Red oak is a comparatively short-lived species, about in a class with sugar maple, tulip, live oak, and sweet gum. The expectancies of some other species, calculated by dendrologists from ring-counts in many specimens, are these:

In the great rain forests of our Pacific slopes grow the oldest trees on our continent - old as botanical forms as well as individually. Douglas firs with 700 annual rings are not uncommon and at least one with 1375 rings is recorded. The age of redwoods has sometimes been exaggerated. In a thirty-acre plot containing 567 redwoods, one careful investigator found only seventeen over 1000 years old. Elsewhere, he found one that was nearly 2000. Oldest and largest of all are the giant sequoias, some of which antedate man's recorded history. They were perhaps 2500 years old when Christ was born, and may well live many more centuries if left untampered by man. A peculiar stunted native of the southern Rockies called the bristlecone pine is also known to have lived four millennia.Only to a few is it given to own trees of such ages. But contemplation of the two- and three-century types can impart to any of us a curious kind of elation. The treelet we plant this year could, and it just might, survive until Peace reigns on earth and men are commuting to Venus. Viewed subjectively, to plant and cultivate a hardy tree in one's lifetime is to project one's humble and mortal personality far into the future.

By the same token that some old trees have historical associations, new ones can have future meaning. As a monument - to yourself or to an event of your time - a hardy tree which you rear and enjoy is more considerable than a stone memorial erected posthumously. An engraved metal plate explaining the tree's significance, placed there by you or your descendants, is in taste quite as good as the legends men carve in granite or marble. One of the most touching moments in this reporter's tree career came when he paused to admire four magnificent roadside trees - a white pine, sugar maple, hemlock, and white oak - fronting a modest rural homestead. An old gentleman came around the corner of the house with his lawnmower, and presently explained: "My grandfather planted those trees the day he heard President Lincoln was assassinated." Though they live so much longer than we do, most trees mature quite as rapidly, and some much more so. A number of kinds are capable of reproducing at a fraction of our potential age for parenthood. Yet their increase in size can continue almost indefinitely whereas our measurements reach definite limits (except perhaps in girth) and then slightly shrink. Tree growth appears to decelerate with age but, under favorable circumstances, it does not actually do so. After its first spurting years from seedling to sapling to young maturity, a normal tree in normal years adds at least two inches of twig length and one or two inches of trunk girth.

As height, spread, and girth increase, the tree's enlargement becomes relatively less but stays specifically about the same. An inch or two of girth added to a 48-inch diameter bole just shows less than when it is added to a 12-incher. Palm trees, whose immunity to trunk injury has been noted, are immune also to obesity, and for the same reason that renders them so durable. Having a diffused, internal vascular system instead of an integrated, peripheral one, they do not add annual outward growth rings. Instead, after attaining their mature girth, in bundles instead of layers of tissue, they thereafter grow only upward, at that fixed girth. These thoughts are set down here by way of framing for reference some answers to the kind of question new home owners ask about the futures of the trees they plant: "When will they really give us shade?" "How long before they grow high as the house?" "How big, how old, can they get?"