To Kill a Tree: The Poisoning of Austin's Landmark Live Oak Has the Nation Outraged - and Sending Get-Well Cards

By Davis, Norah Deakin | American Forests, September-October 1989 | Go to article overview

To Kill a Tree: The Poisoning of Austin's Landmark Live Oak Has the Nation Outraged - and Sending Get-Well Cards


Davis, Norah Deakin, American Forests


Tree lovers everywhere are keeping their fingers crossed as an ancient live oak battles for its life. Since June, television and news media have been flocking to Austin, Texas, to chronicle the poignant story of the Treaty Oak, a venerable live oak listed in the American Forestry Association's compilation of famous and historic U.S. trees. The oak, long beloved by the citizens of Austin, is fighting for life after being intentionally poisoned with a potent herbicide.

For close to five centuries, the Treaty Oak has stood near the east bank of the Colorado River. It has withstood floods, droughts, insects, and scorching heat, not to mention 20th-century air pollution. Even before Coronado and De Soto arrived, the Indians wove legends about the tree's powers, and in the centuries that followed it stood as a silent sentinel to much of the history of Texas.

With branches spanning 127 feet horizontally, this splendid live oak (Quercus virginiana) has sheltered generations of Austin picnickers, and its branches have lured countless numbers of young climbers. Its gnarled trunk has witnessed many a young man proposing to his future bride, and more times than the citizens of Austin can remember, it has stood as a living symbol of permanence as clergymen performed wedding ceremonies beneath its spreading canopy.

But last june the ailing tree lost its leaves, put out a new set within a few days, and then lost those. As it grew still a third set, tree doctors from around the country flew to the patient's bedside. With its trunk wrapped in plastic like a bandage, the tree's prognosis looked grim.

The New York Times ran a front-page story, USA Today and the Washington Post published lengthy accounts of the tragedy, and Barbara Walters aired a "Good Morning America" segment. Thousands of Texans and well-wishers from as far away as Australia and the Philippines poured in to wish the live oak a speedy recovery. Some brought flowers, others offered get-well cards and even cans of chicken soup. New Agers linked hands and chanted earth songs. Some were angry. Many wept.

This was not the first time Texans had rallied to save the Treaty Oak. In 1937 the elderly landowner who had preserved the tree for years on its small piece of land in the heart of Austin found it necessary to offer the plot for sale. The historic live oak was in danger of being removed in the name of progress. Schoolchildren and Campfire Girls held poetry contests to raise money to help the city purchase the land and establish a small park.

The tree has deep roots in Texas lore. Legend has it that pioneer Stephen F. Austin, who founded the earliest English-speaking settlements in Texas, closed the first boundary-line pact with the Indians beneath its shade. That story is as persistent as another that holds that the landmark tree was once named the most perfect specimen of a live oak in North America. "In reality," says City Forester John Giedraitis, "there are older and bigger live oaks in the state." He quickly adds, "But none more beautiful or more historic."

On July 1, more than 800 Austinites gathered at the tree to sign a pact with nature and set up a special Treaty Oak Fund for donations to plant trees in the city's other parks. Richard Huffman, president of the Texas Botanical Garden Society, said the effort is an attempt to transform the outpouring of concern for the Treaty Oak into a permanent commitment to conservation.

The events that led up to this summer's vigil began just before Memorial Day. On May 29 Giedraitis received a phone call from a concerned citizen who reported that the famed tree appeared to be afflicted with oak wilt, a fungus that has devastated the live oaks of Texas. But Giedraitis' investigation revealed that the tree was suffering from a more sinister affliction, chemical poisoning.

Oak wilt kills the veins on the leaves, Giedraitis says, but the Treaty Oak's symptoms were just the opposite. …

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