Famous bur oak tree gets pampered

Tuesday, March 11, 2008 | 5:19 p.m. CDT; updated 4:57 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Mike Sestric is elevated into the bur oak tree in McBaine, known to many simply as the "big tree," while Will Branch directs him from below. The men and their co-workers worked on the tree Tuesday by trimming branches and taking soil samples from around the tree's base.

COLUMBIA — Boone County’s most famous tree received some long-awaited tender loving care.

On Tuesday afternoon, the state champion bur oak was pruned and treated for its declining health. Located in the Missouri River bottom on Burr Oak Road near McBaine, the giant oak also had sample twigs removed to preserve its hearty DNA. The tree, with a 91-inch diameter, has been a landmark for many years and a popular spot for pictures and gatherings.


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“This tree’s too valuable to pass up,” Bill Spradley, an arborist, said.

Spradley, who is also a forester and a graduate of MU, said he got the idea to provide the horticultural care after noticing a lack of growth on the tree’s upper limbs.

“It shouldn’t die on the sunny side,” he said. “This side’s had too much root injury.”

He joined forces with Earl Cully, a plant propagator who owns several patents, to complete two tasks: remove newer twigs, called scion wood, and prune dead branches in the process.

“I have an intense interest in saving a lot of these old giants,” Cully said. “The genetics of these trees should never be lost.”

Cully plans on grafting the scion wood to propagate further growth. For grafting, twigs sprouted in the last year are preferred. Like pulling chopsticks apart, the wood is split down the middle. The piece is then waxed and grafted to another tree.

“Chances are good it will grow,” Cully said.

Spradley also laid out a five-point plan to fight the tree’s recent decline. He had the help of employees from his company, Trees, Forests and Landscapes of Kirkwood. Employees were lifted on a powered platform to cut out dead wood. The tree’s nutritional needs were addressed by adding several compounds to the soil: a growth regulator, a beneficial fungus and fertilizer. Woods chips were scattered around the base of the tree to smooth out unevenness in the soil caused by foot and vehicle traffic. The ground around the tree’s base was aerated to deliver additional oxygen to the root system. And, finally, samples of scion wood were collected for grafting.

Aided by the sunny weather on Tuesday afternoon, workers swung from branch to branch on ropes, removing dead limbs and dropping them to the ground. The dry, dead wood hit the ground with a loud thud, breaking into small pieces.

“There’s quite an art to it,” MU Professor Chris Starbuck said of the pruning process. Starbuck, with the division of plant science, has known Spradley for years and was interested in helping.

“It’s kind of snowballed,” Starbuck said. He was going to use the opportunity later Tuesday afternoon to give his MU students some real-world horticulture exposure.

“We just thought it was a good learning opportunity for everyone involved, including myself,” he said. “Whatever happens has to have the approval to Mr. Williamson. He’s a good sport as far as allowing people to enjoy the tree.”

John Sam Williamson owns the property containing the champion oak, which was purchased by his family around 1835. Passed down through six generations, Williamson said the tree has sentimental value.

“It’s almost like a member of the family,” he said. He was contacted by Starbuck about Spradley’s interest in preserving historic trees.

“I’m certainly no expert on trees,” Williamson said. “I was glad for them to do it.”

The tree has endured significant elements over the years, particularly the flood of 1993. For several weeks, the ground was covered in excess of 6 feet of water, limiting its access to nutrients.

“Trees don’t live forever,” Starbuck said. “The flood of ‘93 probably took some years off this tree.”

The tree continues to attract attention not only because of its status as one of the largest bur oaks in the country, but also because of its history with the community.

“I’m glad to hear the response,” Spradley said. “It’s time to put some effort into it.”

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Kevin Gamble March 12, 2008 | 1:53 p.m.

This is great to see, if done well. From the article, it sounds like they have the right expertise to do it correctly, as opposed to the way trees are often butchered around Columbia to avoid power lines, etc.

Whoever trims trees for the city--Asplundh and/or others--routinely cuts tree limbs in completely the wrong way, resulting in harm to the tree, distorted future growth, and more work later as the badly cut tree grows back in a non-controlled way. It's shameful how many "topped" trees you still see around town, which of course subsequently erupt with a burst of branches in all directions. It hurts the tree, is aesthetically ugly, and ends up being only a temporary fix.

And that's entirely leaving out the question of Columbia's spectacularly bad tree ordinance, which results in developers decimating wooded areas and leaving something with very little value as habitat.

Hopefully Columbia can learn something from this example about the vaule of properly caring for its trees.

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