Venerable trees of the Kentucky Bluegrass
Lexington is home to an astonishing number of very large, very old trees. Many of these trees were here before the city was settled and represent the original vegetation of the Bluegrass. As the city grew, the native woodland pastures were cleared for development, but the finest trees were often kept in yards, parks and even in industrial areas. Please join Venerable Trees for a guided tour of Lexington's finest trees on Saturday, October 14.
Here are a few of my favorite Lexington trees.
Those who have read my book or heard my presentations know that one of our major concerns about the future of our rare and ancient woodland pastures is the failure of trees to reproduce. With trees succumbing to age, lightning and poor management, the population of ancient trees is declining. While we are constantly on the lookout for young trees, they are quite rare. As anyone can readily see, if death rate > birth rate, the future of our trees is grim.
On January 1, we had the opportunity to explore woodland pastures and a large woodland in Bourbon County, thanks to the hospitality of Jim and Kellye Pikul. We wandered their property and several adjacent properties in search of woodland pasture trees, especially bur, chinkapin, and Shumard oak as well as kingnut and blue ash.
What we found was astonishing and a revelation. All over the area were huge old venerable trees, including a 72" diameter bur oak. There were exceptionally large bur, chinkapin, and Shumard oaks and blue ash, with a few kingnuts. There were also many immense sugarberry trees (Celtis laevigata). Sugarberry is primarily a bottomland tree in western Kentucky and the south. It is found on upland limestone sites but has apparently not previously been reported in Bourbon County.
The most astonishing part of our ramble was the very large number of young trees of all the woodland pasture species. This indicates that there is the potential on this site for a self-sustaining woodland pasture. We found young trees mixed with very large trees in three sites. In the large woodland, most of the younger trees were chinkapin oaks, bur oaks, a few Shumard oaks, many kingnuts and blue ash. These trees ranged from pole-size saplings to mature overstory trees. The woodland is now choked with honeysuckle and wintercreeper, so it is likely that further natural regeneration will not occur.
There is a huge amount to learn from this site, and it is worthy of close scrutiny. If we can learn why this site is reproducing well, we may be able to facilitate natural regeneration in other woodland pastures. We hope to work with landowners and with interested volunteers to learn more about this site, and to work on improving management, especially of the woodland which is badly in need of thinning and invasive species control.
Followers of our website will hear a lot more about this very exciting site in months to come. We will schedule a Field Course there as soon as possible.
The Veteran Oak in Lexington is one of the most iconic trees in the city. A magnificent bur oak, it lies along a popular walking path on the south side of town. The Veteran Oak is a left-behind, the only ancient tree in a young riparian (stream-side) forest. Most of the ancient left-behind trees are on dry uplands, like the Old Schoolhouse Tree. The Veteran’s Park Oak is on a stream bank and benefits from high soil moisture and intermittent flooding.
The tree is in excellent condition. It has a few dead branches and lost its top at some time. This is normal for very old trees, and the dead branches and hollows provide habitat for a wide range of animals and fungi. Young trees around the old oak are beginning to grow into its canopy. Sometime soon, in the next few years, we will need to thin the trees around the Veteran’s Park Oak to give its lower crown more sunlight. This technique of removing smaller trees to concentrate growth on larger trees is called ‘thinning from below’, also sometimes called ‘haloing’, though I prefer the former term. The path that goes by the tree on the creek side is causing some soil compaction, and should be closed.
Here is a photograph of the entire tree. This is a composite of 36 individual photos stitched together.