Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
March, 2008
Regional Report

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The Survivor Tree has become a symbol of mankind's resilience. (Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation)

The Survivor Tree

One evening last fall when I was in Oklahoma City for a Garden Writer's Association symposium, I walked to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum that honors those who lost their lives and those whose lives were forever changed by the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The manmade elements of the memorial took my breath away -- the Gates of Time that stand at opposite ends of the memorial site and mark the minute before, and the minute after, the explosion; the Field of Empty Chairs representing each of the individuals who died; the Reflecting Pool that lies where 5th Street once stood alongside the former Murrah building; the fence where people still hang flowers, photos, and remembrances.

But to me the most amazing part of the memorial was the big old American elm tree that somehow survived the blast just yards away when nothing else did. It had been the only tree in the parking lot next to the Murrah building, and people would come to work early to park in its shade. After the explosion, the blackened framework of the tree still stood. It was almost cut down so investigators could retrieve the forensic evidence contained in its branches, and because people thought "How could the tree survive?" But it leafed out the following spring and became a symbol of human resilience for a city trying to heal.

In learning more about this 90-year-old Survivor Tree, I was struck by how much effort went into saving it, both in the plans for the construction of the memorial and in the tree's ongoing care. A promontory, built around the tree because of the grade change, was put on piers that were hand dug to avoid damaging any roots. An elaborate aeration and irrigation system runs beneath the promontory to keep the roots healthy. The plan to care for the tree was developed by a local urban forester, Mark Bays, and he has been its protector ever since. It's been a labor of love for Bays, who is quick to thank the countless people who have donated time and materials over the years to keep this tree alive. Last fall he told me cuttings from the tree were being grown so there would be a replacement if anything happened to the tree, and some of the saplings have been given away each year on the anniversary of the bombing.

Now these saplings are for sale to the general public through the Historic Tree Program of the nonprofit conservation organization, American Forests. If I were going to plant a new, large shade tree in my yard, I would love to grow one with this kind of history.

When I visited the Web site of American Forests' Historic Tree Program (, I learned I could also plant a red maple that's an offspring of a tree that sheltered Thoreau on Walden Pond. If I lived further south, I could plant a southern magnolia descended from the one planted by President Andrew Jackson next to the White House portico, which is pictured on the old twenty dollar bill. And many more offspring of famous and historic trees are available for us to grow. When we plant trees we are looking towards the future, and these trees with an historic legacy also extend the continuum into the past.

The trees that are offered for sale are only a portion of the 2,000 in the National Register of Historic Trees, which American Forests has been researching and documenting since 1917. These trees are honored for such distinctions as being located on the site of an event that affected the lives of citizens of the day, such as the Survivor Tree and the sycamore trees that were planted on the Princeton University campus to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766. The list also includes trees that are located at the home of a person who made a notable contribution to the nation's development. Some trees were depicted in primary documents related to a historical event; or figurative in historical legend, such as the massive live oak tree on the bank of the St. John's River in Jacksonville, Florida, considered the legendary site of treaty negotiations between Native Americans and settlers.

Even without a famous ancestor, trees speak of history. It's up to us to heed the Lorax (with a nod to Dr. Suess) and speak for the trees. The people of Oklahoma City spoke for their Survivor Tree, and that tree has inspired and healed them in turn. Just this past December the tree survived the ice storm that devastated the region and downed more than 500,000 trees in the city area. Mark Bays and others arrived in the middle of the night to begin carefully knocking off the nearly inch-thick layer of ice that coated the branches, and saved the tree once again.

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