Mighty Oaks From Little Acorns Grow

By Joan Gould

The donation of a historical tree from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in 2015 planted a seed in Commissioner R. Jack Cagle’s mind. What if Precinct 4 grew its own collection of historical Texas trees?

So Cagle approached Laura Medick, Precinct 4 arborist, with two project ideas: Plant native fruit and nut trees along the Spring Creek Greenway, the greenspace along the banks of Spring Creek from U.S. 59 to Interstate 45, and cultivate a collection of historical Texas trees.

Medick began by extensively researching historical Texas trees and prioritizing seed collection from 48 of the 101 trees listed in Famous Trees of Texas by Gretchen Riley, based on location, accessibility, and condition of the tree.

“These trees are snapshots of Texas history,” Cagle said. “From the Battle Oaks that provided wood for a Civil War fortress to protect the Texas Capitol in 1883 to the Runaway Scrape Oak where Gen. Sam Houston stood as he ordered an evacuation when the Mexican army was closing in just before the Battle of San Jacinto. The Legacy Trees Project preserves and carries on the stories of these trees for generations to come.”

Medick had specific criteria in selecting her historic trees.

“I prioritized trees with tree limb failures and poor condition for collection,” she said. “We preserved the Courthouse Cedar’s history with over 200 seedlings.”

The Courthouse Cedar in Bryan, Texas, presided over five courthouses and was moved several times before finding its permanent home at the Brazos County Courthouse in 1870. The county removed the nearly 180-year-old tree in the summer of 2019 because of structural failure and safety concerns.

“All trees have a story to tell and a legacy to pass on,” Medick said. “These trees are not going to be there forever. If I have a copy of that tree, I can give it back to the community.”

During her first year, Medick collected acorns from 30 trees and grew 157 seedlings. By the end of 2019, the collection had grown to 766 seedlings from historical trees and more than 2,000 trees planted along the Spring Creek Greenway.

Finding Success

Medick’s success in growing a collection of historical trees is a credit to her thorough research, meticulous care of the seeds and seedlings, and prudent planning for the saplings. She carefully documents and tracks each acorn collected and planted, and often finds success where others have failed.

“Seedling growth from the Ben Milam Cypress Tree, where Texas Revolution hero Benjamin Milam was killed during battle, had not been accomplished in the past, but I was able to give saplings back to the community to replant,” Medick said.

“I collect whatever I can from the tree,” she said. “If I don’t get any acorns, I dig up side shoots. Even if I get a lot of acorns and have more time, I’m digging up stuff.

“With the acorn, it’s like a human baby with half of the genetic material from mom and half from dad. A side shoot from the tree is a 100% clone of the parent. I’ll take what I can get, but I do prefer the clones because then I have an identical copy of the tree.”

Medick assesses each site along the trail to determine whether it needs invasive species management before planting.

“Once an area is clear of invasive species, I can decide what type of native trees to plant,” she said. “For example, we’re planting willows closer to the banks so the roots may better bind with the soil, while looking to plant a larger pecan in a bright and more visible site.”

Become a Part of Living History

Precinct 4’s Foster A Legacy Tree program offers a unique opportunity for the public to become a part of living history by fostering a historical seedling. Fosters can choose to care for a sapling in a pot at a location of their choice, plant a mature Texas historical tree at a school or nonprofit, or select or plant a tree along the Spring Creek Greenway.

Medick works closely with Foster A Legacy Tree participants to care for the tree and track the tree’s health using tree plotting software and a care journal.

Klein Independent School District’s French Elementary and Spring ISD’s Jenkins Elementary recently became historical tree foster sites. French Elementary received a clone shoot from the Borden Oak, one of the few trees that survived the Great Galveston Storm of 1900, and Jenkins Elementary received a sapling from the Century Tree, a tree from the Texas A&M campus that also dates back to the early 1900s as a symbol of strength and loyalty on campus.

Build a Forest

The Legacy Trees Project’s success has led to larger goals. The project’s upcoming Build A Forest program seeks to reestablish plots of land into thriving forests within three years using the proven Miyawaki method of reforestation.

“The program is aimed at restoring a once urbanized landscape into a natural habitat by creating a forest,” Medick said. “The Miyawaki method initially plants a dense mixture of tree species in different growth stages, which appropriately suit the surrounding natural area.”

Research shows the method is successful in building forests that are 30 times denser, absorb more carbon dioxide, and grow 10 times faster. The technique also boasts a biodiversity 100 times more than other reforestation methods because the immensely dense vegetation does not allow human access. Overall, the method relies very little on human intervention.

“The idea of using existing resources to reforest plots of land in an accelerated time frame is fiscally and environmentally responsible,” Cagle said. “Precinct 4 is known for its greenspaces and access to nature. We want to keep it that way and do what we can to improve and expand the greenspace whenever possible.”

The Build A Forest program will include an outdoor classroom in partnership with the Spring Creek Education Society, an organization that supports educational opportunities and projects along the Spring Creek Greenway. The classroom will be used to monitor and track the progress of the forest and share educational opportunities.

“The forest will become a tool for flood mitigation, a habitat for local fauna, and serve as a long-term educational opportunity to students, parents, and the general public,” Medick said.

Fulfilling the Mission

The Legacy Trees Project remains committed to furthering its mission to “promote the benefits of trees, support the cultural heritage of Texas, and engage the public through volunteer opportunities.”

“There are so many ways we can fulfill our mission,” Medick said. “Through tree planting, the invasive species removal program, seed collections, nursery and greenhouse tree care, and teaching others on how they may serve as stewards in their communities.”

To learn more about how you can foster a tree or join Precinct 4’s Legacy Trees Project for invasive species removal or tree plantings, visit hcp4.net/legacytrees.