Fredericksburg City Beat

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The tulip poplar — a third arborist’s view

The tulip poplar at JMHS, photographed yesterday. Photo by Holly Chichester

I’ve requested the independent arborist’s report on the tulip poplar at James Monroe High School from the schools, but have yet to receive it. In the meantime, another certified arborist, Holly Chichester, who sits on the board of directors for Trees Virginia, visited the tree yesterday.

She wrote in an e-mail to me that “there are steps that could be taken to at least prolong its life, but it’s clearly failing.”

Chichester was one of several city residents to urge the schools to protect the tree during the construction of the new high school. As she states in her letter below, some of that construction likely contributed to the tree’s demise, in her opinion.

Samaras from the JM tulip poplar. Photo by Holly Chichester

But Chichester hopes the community will at least do something to preserve the tree’s memory. She’s collected some of the samaras, or seeds, from the tree, and hopes to try to germinate seedlings that could perhaps be planted one day at JM. And she’d like to see whether the wood can be saved for local artisans to create goods that could help people remember the tree.

Here is Chichester’s letter:

Trees and Tribulations

By Holly M. Chichester

So, do you know what it takes to become a 100+-year-old Tulip Poplar tree? Never mind what it takes to survive a century of extreme weather conditions and a Civil War, just getting from samara to seedling is a series of struggles!

For tulip poplars, heavy seed crops tend to compensate for low seed viability (around 5-20%).

The samaras (the cone-shaped aggregate of winged seeds) are wind-dispersed to distances up to five times the height of the parent tree. Seeds require a cold stratification period (a period of moist cold), and germination rates vary with time and temperature. Under controlled conditions, stratification in moist sand within a temperature range of 32° to 50° F for periods of 70 to 90 days result in…

…I mean, come on! It’s a miracle these things can grow at all! I guess that’s why I’m so bugged about the Jayem Tulip Poplar—because I know what it’s taken to grow to become a tree with a caliper size big enough to make my large Chocolate Labrador look like a Chihuahua. Sure, I’ve got a professional background in trees and other rooted things, but I’m also a Jayem alum and a concerned native daughter of the Fredericksburg area. I’ve taken sides with this grand tree for almost a decade now, so as it faces the fate of a chainsaw, clearly you’re going to hear from me again.

At the onset of the new school’s construction, several concerned folks stepped up and requested they do at least the minimum to protect it—loads of wood chips in a deep, wide ring to provide a shock absorber for the roots against construction traffic and a barrier of silt fence to keep equipment away from the trunk. I feel a little guilty, actually, because I moved away to another state for a long while and couldn’t keep watch. Years passed, and they (in my opinion) thoughtlessly installed a concrete block ball field dug out on top of the root zone on one side and then a hot, black, heat-sink of a running track along the other.  A teachable moment for sure—on how to kill a tree.  Shame on us for repeatedly inflicting heavy impacts on a tree of advanced age and a species of low tolerance to disturbance! Sadly, I have never seen tulip poplars with this degree of decline recuperate with or without intervention by an arborist. Mix that with the oppressive heat and lack of rain we’ve had this year alone and, well…

This graceful, but ailing giant deserved better. What’s most unfortunate is that despite the tree’s fortitude throughout 100 years of history, its downfall boils down to our disrespect for nature and history; the fallout of a throwaway culture.

It’s replaceable, right?

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  • dennis

    Nature once again succumbs to the god of progress. It is a shame that these majestic trees that are temporal in substance cannot be treated with respect and awe for the time they are here. No school building, running track, or baseball dugout could ever compare to the awesomeness of this tree.

    I am grateful for all efforts to birth a new specimen from its seeds.

  • TPKeller

    Thanks for the additional information. Learning that this particular type of tree does not tolerate disturbance makes it clear that it was doomed from the start of the construction nearby.

    Take a look at the aerial view of the area:

    The photo is obviously winter, but it shows how the roots were almost completely “paved over”. I don’t think it ever had a chance.

    I hope that many seeds can be harvested, perhaps that would be a great little fund-raiser for JM, I bet many local residents and alumni would be glad to plant an offspring of this memorable tree!

  • Ansel

    I came across your site by accident and you really placed me in the middle of this chaos, surrounding this tree. I don’t know the tree personally, but because I too have a profound appreciation for trees, I was cut deeply as well. I’m 19 now and I feel very alone when it comes to this unshared appreciation for nature. It seems kids these days don’t understand the importance of other living beings and how much we take for granted the existence of other things. Your blog makes me even more happy to germinate my tulip tree seedlings. At least, out of this tragedy, there’s always the solace that somewhere else, there will be tulip trees ready to survive life. I just discovered the tulip tree and I love its unique leaf shape. And I just want to finally say, keep doing what you’re doing!

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