Magazine article American Forests

Historic Tree Collection Damaged

Magazine article American Forests

Historic Tree Collection Damaged

Article excerpt

Seeds, trees with ties to American history are lost as a tornado hits Jacksonville, Florida, in the wake of Hurricane Frances.

A catalog of historic events dating back more than 200 years was lost in a matter of minutes when a tornado ripped though AMERICAN FORESTS' Historic Tree Nursery in Jacksonville, Florida, in September. The tornado, an offshoot of Hurricane Frances, destroyed thousands of seeds and 40,000 trees ranging in size from seedlings to 20-foot-tall landscape trees.

That catalog of seeds and trees was 16 years in the making, representing seeds carefully gathered on trips across the country and around the world. Each had a pedigree traceable to a famous American, a momentous event, or a historic place.

Nursery director Jeff Meyer estimates damages at $6 million.

Meyer shakes his head as he surveys his three battered state-of-the-art greenhouses. Water flooded containers of seed that had been kept under climate- and moisture-controlled conditions. "It's devastating," he says, "but we're determined to rebuild."

Meyer was justifiably proud of his greenhouses, which used a state-of-the-art process to keep fertilized water from contaminating the aquifer or groundwater. At the greenhouse rainwater was captured in cisterns and released twice daily via computer. After flooding the growing tables the water and fertilizers were returned to the cisterns.

High winds devastated two growing houses and a mist house where new seeds germinated. As the roofs were blown off, trees were blown from tables, seed trays were flooded and young trees were broken off at soil level.


Since 1987 the nursery has been supplying trees to schoolchildren, homeowners, and celebrities. Schools love the nursery's living Classroom program, which teams trees, lesson plans, and software to help students make the connection between trees and science, history, math, and technology. Meyer has planted trees with every president since Ronald Reagan. The trees have also been used for 9-11 memorials and in plantings at Arlington Cemetery and at Versailles.

"My all-time favorite plantings, though," he says, "have been the ones with kids." It's that loss, he adds, that weighs most heavily on his mind. "My hope is that once again Historic Tree Nursery will provide trees and seeds to schoolkids across the country."

The six-page list of tree losses reads like a crib sheet for a history quiz: species attached to the names George Washington, Martin Luther King, Amelia Earhart, Thomas Edison, and Thomas Jefferson. Other trees bore names that evoke images from America's past: Gettysburg, Monticello, Williamsburg. Among the rarest seeds lost were Chinese arborvitae seeds brought back from Beijing's Forbidden City, the home of emperors, by Zane Smith, a retired forester and ambassador for People To People International who serves as a field rep for AMERICAN FORESTS.

The idea for a nursery of "historic trees" was born after Meyer's son picked up an acorn from Jacksonville's historic Treaty Oak while on a family picnic. Meyer and his wife planted the seed in their backyard and the idea grew from there. The trees have been featured in the PBS documentary Silent Witnesses; in the syndicated Tree Stories; and on The Late Show with David Letterman, where Meyer presented the comedian with a David Letterman Tulip Poplar, the offspring of a tree in his Broad Ripple, Indiana hometown. Those seeds were among the ones lost, Meyer said.

Also lost were seeds gathered from a tulip poplar planted at Mount Vernon in 1785 by George Washington. The seeds were considered especially rare because they were gathered after the tree had to be hand-pollinated from a cherrypicker by an official from the National Arboretum. …

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