'Big Tree' treated for disease, given protections for longevity

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 | 6:41 p.m. CDT; updated 8:34 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Treatment on the big tree began Tuesday. The work included cutting off dead wood, coating the tree's roots in fungicide, mulching and installing an in-ground lightning rod.

COLUMBIA — Every day, Chris Starbuck looks out his window at the bur oak tree fondly known in Columbia as "The Big Tree."

As a retired MU horticulture professor, Starbuck has a love for the tree. Any time something is occurring around the tree, such as workers out caring for it or an interesting weather event like fog, he is out in the field taking pictures.

"I've probably taken several hundred pictures of it," he said.

On Tuesday, Starbuck was again out taking photos as several workers in hard hats surrounded the tree, treating it for disease and protecting it for many more years of healthy living and public enjoyment.

The workers cut off dead wood, drilled holes in the ground to bring oxygen to the roots and coat them in fungicide, mulched around the tree to keep moisture in the soil and reduce the compaction of the ground, and installed an in-ground lightning rod to protect against lightning damage.

The tree's roots currently show root rot, which is a sign that a pathogen is in its early stages. The fungicide applied Tuesday will treat the roots for the pathogen and slow the growth of the tree's canopy.

Arborist William Spradley, president and owner of Trees, Forests and Landscapes, Inc., is in charge of the tree's treatment.

He said his love for the tree began when he was a student at MU. The tree influenced his career path; it inspired him to switch emphases in college from timber management, which focuses on how to grow trees to cut down for a profit, to urban forest management, which focuses on using trees for decoration and making heating and cooling more efficient for homeowners.

"This tree inspires anyone who drives by," Spradley said. "Trees like this should be preserved."

The tree's health improved after it was last treated in March 2008. When Spradley suggested returning to do work on the tree, others voiced enthusiasm. His company and the other companies involved in caring for the tree are all volunteering their time .

The public can help keep the tree healthy by not carving or painting it, by not compacting the soil by driving around it and by donating money to help care for it, said Scott Skopec, the supervisor for Cuivre River Electric Cooperative, which provided a 70-foot elevator lift for cutting down dead wood.

The Big Tree is the second largest bur oak in the U.S. The largest one, located in Kentucky, has shown signs of deterioration in recent years, Spradley said.

The Big Tree is 90 feet tall, almost 24 feet around and 7 1/2 feet in diameter, according to previous Missourian reporting. It estimated to be 350 years old.

"It's hard to get an accurate count until the tree has been cut down," Spradley said. Since this cannot be done, the rings around the trunk will be counted in the late afternoon after much of the work has been done to the tree.

The tree has been here since before Louis and Clark explored the area, according to owner John Sam Williamson.

The Big Tree has been in Williamson's family for six generations, since they moved to Missouri from Virginia in 1827. They bought the land The Big Tree was on in 1835 and were the third private owners of the land since Missouri became a state in 1821.

"I don't really consider that we own the tree, I consider it public domain," Williamson said. "I'm just the caretaker of the tree."

Williamson said he is grateful for the work being done to the tree.

"We think it can live a long time, and this is just an effort to protect it," he said. "The tree is very lucky it hasn't died from flood, lightning and tornadoes."

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