Half Millennial Airlie Oak Gets TLC And Makes Babies

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The Airlie Oak, whose kernel dates back to at least 1545, has been the subject of gentle interventions this year to protect it from lightning strikes and promote its health. (Photo from Port City Daily / Johanna F. Still)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– After surviving dozens of hurricanes and going unnoticed by lightning strikes, this spring the Airlie Oak was examined by tree experts and underwent a handful of interventions.

“Oak care has evolved,” said Janine Powell, director of donor relations at Airlie Gardens. “Mostly the longest, she’s been allowed to do her own thing.”

RELATED: A tree or two? Shaved oak dispute highlights need for objective county arborist, tree experts say

Dated to 1545 by coring, the oak is listed in the NC Champion Big Tree program of the NC Forest Service. It served as the backdrop for hundreds, if not thousands, of weddings. (In fact, a young man fell to his knees in front of the tree in the middle of this Port City Daily interview: she said yes.)

“These are pieces of history,” said Powell. “Imagine what she saw. “

A slight thudding sound prompted the Airlie Gardens team to seek outside help with the care of the oak tree. One sunny day last fall –– with no major winds or witnesses in sight –– one of the tree’s low branches loosened to the ground. Garden maintenance supervisor Steven Smith and his team checked the day’s security camera footage, “and of course there was no one there, that’s sort of sorted out,” he said. he declared.

The towering limb was allowed to remain crawling on the dirt, but now it’s reinforced with a custom brace (much like a knee replacement). This intervention and others were described in a thick report produced last November for Airlie Gardens by Bartlett Tree Experts.

“They made recommendations on what we could do to make sure it’s there for generations to come,” Powell said.

With the recommendations implemented, the marquee oak now has wiring installed, threaded between the top branches for support. Two thin wires meander along its trunk from its highest point, about 70 feet high, to its base where the cable reaches an underground box buried several meters away; this system is designed to channel electricity, deflecting damage from the tree itself.

“You know, we have one tree in the middle of a field, so…” said Smith. “Energy comes out and is grounded here rather than in the tree,” Powell explained of the ideal lightning strike scenario.

Thick layers of Spanish moss and resurrection fern, which adorn the tree with an even more enchanting feel, have been thinned to lighten the weight of the sprawling branches. “We’re just lowering the threshold. We love the look of the Spanish moss, ”said Smith. “When a bride comes, she wants this look.”

Pine straw and ivy were replaced with mulch produced by the county composter, giving the roots a better chance to access more organic matter. The dead sections of the branches were pruned. The perimeter, intended to protect the root ball from trees, has been widened.

Under its former private property (the county bought the gardens in 99), visitors were invited to sit under the oak tree on a bench. Now, this space is fenced under the direction of the county to protect it (and visitors, in case a branch unexpectedly lands).

“Overall, we find people to be extremely respectful of trees and understand their importance,” said Powell, adding that staff rarely meet anyone who crosses the threshold. That is, with the exception of a previous frequent visitor: “We had an older man who –– I don’t think he’s alive anymore. He used to come here and give her a hug, ”she said. “He was Polish and he just felt his energy. We didn’t laugh at him.

“It was really sweet,” Powell continued. “He hugged all the trees. He felt a very spiritual connection with the energies that the trees gave.

An oak tree that Airlie Gardens staff refer to as “The Darlington” is located opposite the Butterfly Garden near the parking lot. (Photo from Port City Daily / Johanna F. Still)

Between the consultation report and the recent remediation work, the nonprofit Airlie Gardens spent nearly $ 25,000 on the Airlie Oak in one year. A new dedicated fund has recently been set aside to raise donations for exactly this type of work on the flagship oak and its “sisters” as described by Powell, who are “equally impressive”.

Remediation work on the trees in the perimeter is planned for upcoming projects on an as yet undetermined schedule.

In May, the gardens helped coordinate its very first sale of saplings propagated from brother oaks. The 250 sold in 36 hours.

The sale was made by entrepreneur Richard Johnson, who approached the gardens with his vision of collecting acorns from oaks and cultivating their growth at Penderlea Farms, his Burgaw company dedicated to living oak.

“I said, ‘Look, I guarantee you will make between $ three and $ 5,000 a year after five years,” Johnson said of his pitch in the gardens. At the first sale this spring, “they raised $ 5,000, “he said.” So it didn’t take five years. It took a year.

About half of the proceeds go to support the Gardens’ new oak fund and the rest helps Penderlea balance their efforts to care for the saplings.

Johnson meticulously and thoroughly searches for eligible acorns throughout the region for his saplings. Although her team has collected acorns on “the old maid herself,” these babies aren’t quite ready to be alone. When they are, the partnership will organize another fundraiser.

On Monday, open presale orders for the second batch of Propagated Airlie Oaks ever sold. Powell expects the $ 40 and 3 gallon saplings to sell out quickly. “It’s a way for people to own a piece of history and keep that heritage in their own backyard,” she said.

This round features what the Penderlea team call the “Salts” – ground oak trees along the water’s edge, with roots touching Bradley Creek.

“They say a living oak tree takes 500 years to grow and 500 years to die,” Johnson said. “They last 1,000 years, which is why it’s such a great tree to plant in your garden. Because you are giving a generational gift.

Smith’s staff have already planted some of the oak trees propagated in the gardens. “They are slow cultivators. they will look really good in a few hundred years, ”said Smith.

After losing nearly 300 trees in Florence, 80 in Dorian and several in Isaias, three consecutive hurricanes destroyed much of the garden canopy.

“We are now thinking about what our canopy will look like in 20 years? ” he said. “We must continue to collect data, monitor these trees and deliver a decisive plan for the next generation. “

Although the caretakers have ensured the preservation of the oak over the years – namely Sarah Jones, who orchestrated the design of the garden in the early 1900s – Smith credits the tree’s luck and natural persistence for its survival.

“It was really a testament to the tree itself, how it adjusted to make sure it could withstand those winds,” said Smith, admiring the strength of the oak in the gusts. hurricane force while observing its winding base. “So I think most of the credit goes to the tree itself.”

“She outlived Hazel,” Powell added.

Driven by the pandemic, the number of visits to the gardens increased last year from 115,000 to 125,000, according to Powell. This year, visitors are already on track to beat last year’s peak of 10%, she said. To meet the increased demand, the team added more public programs, including tree walks and bird hikes.

“It’s heartwarming to see, especially during the pandemic, how people have started to connect: being outside and being in nature is really good for my body and soul,” said Powell.

“And that’s the overall goal here,” Smith added. “We are not reinventing the wheel here. We’re just trying to preserve it.

Last fall, one of Airlie Oak’s branches fell to the ground, uninvited. Fresh foliage was still growing from the branch, so a team of tree experts attached a custom brace to it near the damage to reinforce it. (Photo from Port City Daily / Johanna F. Still)
The Airlie Oak, whose kernel dates back to at least 1545, has been the subject of gentle interventions this year to protect it from lightning strikes and promote its health. (Photo from Port City Daily / Johanna F. Still)

Send advice and comments to Johanna F. Also at [email protected]

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