Historic oak tree in Maryland leaves deep roots

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WYE MILLS, Md. – A massive 460-year old oak tree – the oldest white oak in the United States – toppled during severe storms and high winds June 6.

The fate of the Wye Oak on Maryland’s Eastern Shore was inevitable due to its age and gradual decline. By the end of the 20th century, its massive core was hollow.

Nature determined the big tree’s course. Wind was the single, most important threat to its life, as evidenced by the scars on the tree by the sudden loss of several limbs in this century.

Since 1939, the tree has been the centerpiece of the Wye Oak State Park, four acres that protect the tree’s nearly half-acre spread. Recent measurements placed the Wye Oak at over 31 feet around and 96 feet tall.

Preserving legacy. After the storm, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening initiated a coordinated effort to salvage and preserve what remains of the tree.

Staffers from the Maryland Departments of natural resources, transportation and agriculture went to the scene to collect bud wood to attempt to clone the tree, and collected leaves, stems and wood.

The tree was cut into sections and transported by trailer to a storage facility where all the parts will be saved until the state decides what to do with the resources.

Welcomed settlers. The Wye Oak predated the European settlement of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The oldest white oak in the United States stood for more than 450 years near Easton, Md.

In the village of Wye Mills, the oak was a noted landmark in the 1800s, but not one that was given any particular protection. Local residents and travelers along the road from Oxford, Md., on the Chesapeake Bay to Philadelphia, supposedly tied their horses under the tree. One explanation for the gnarled roots and “knees” at the tree’s base was scarring caused by the pawing of the animals’ hooves.

Fame branches out. In 1909, the then gigantic tree was first officially distinguished for its size. Maryland’s first state forester, Fred Besley, along with C. Howard Lloyd, a descendant of Richard Bennett who owned the land from 1705 until 1797, measured and photographed the tree.

Ten years later, the American Forestry magazine honored the Wye in its Tree Hall of Fame and launched what would later become a national search for Big Tree Champions. The Wye Oak still holds the title of largest white oak in the United States. It is one of only two trees to remain national champions since the American Forestry Association began its contest in 1940.

In his 1919 article, H. S. Clopper recounted an interesting story about the famous tree. The lowest, and largest, of the tree’s branches was trimmed in the 19th century to keep the road that passed under it clear. The scar from this huge limb can clearly be seen in 20th century photographs of the oak.

A pool of water, thought to be from a small spring, was found at the base of the tree. When the tree was trimmed, it was discovered that this “spring” was actually created by rainwater collected on the leaves and running down the bark of the oak. Thus the oak had created is own reservoir, which watered it even in the driest times.

Tourist attraction. By 1921, the oak had become something of a tourist attraction, with its own descriptive plaque. It was in private hands from an initial land grant in 1665 until 1939 when recognition of the unique status of the tree led the State of Maryland to purchase the few acres around it to create the Wye Oak State Park.

Until its destruction by a violent thunderstorm June 6, 2002, the oak was one of two remaining national champion trees from the American Forestry Association’s original 1940 selection.

Preserved through cloning. Its historical and horticultural importance was underscored by the successful efforts of Frank Gouin, professor emeritus of horticulture, University of Maryland to clone the oak.

Not only was its age and size notable in themselves, but the tree demonstrated an unusual resistance to oak wilt fungus and gypsy moths. The replication of the oak’s genes by grafting buds from the tree onto seedlings from its own acorns perpetuates those characteristics as well.

A Wye Oak cloning project has been under way since 2000, and there are currently at least 20 Wye Oak clones growing at the state forest nursery in Preston, Md.

The first two Wye Oak clones were planted at George Washington’s Mount Vernon April 26, 2002 – just in time. No other Wye Oak clones exist.

Prior to the success of Gouin’s efforts to clone the Wye Oak, seedlings from the oak’s acorns were planted in other locations.

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