January 15, 2020

Strange Old Trees in Boston and Beyond

If you're ever near Boston Common or at the Massachusetts Statehouse you might notice these two unusual looking trees. They're heavily pruned and flank the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment.

I once thought these trees were planted as part of the memorial, which was completed in 1897. I was wrong. They actually were planted by John Hancock, probably in 1772, which makes them around 248 years old. These trees are OLD, and are definitely the oldest ones on Boston Common.

John Hancock (he of the famous signature) once lived in a mansion that stood where the Statehouse is now. Apparently he wanted to improve his view, so he planted two English elms across from his home. The trees did well, and when the Shaw Memorial was erected a century later the builders made sure not to damage them. The memorial actually sits on top of a large stone vault which was built to house the roots of the trees.

There are very few English elm trees left in North America, and these two are allegedly the oldest English elms in the Western Hemisphere. Elms used to be widespread in American cities but sadly were decimated in the 20th century but Dutch elm disease, a fungal infection spread by an invasive beetle. The trees planted by John Hancock were protected from the disease because their roots are encased in the stone vault.

Elm trees can live for up to 400 years (!) and arborists are determined to keep these two alive for as long as possible. One method they use is heavy pruning, which prevents damage from heavy winds or ice and also encourages the trunk to stay thick and healthy. They've also filled in hollow parts of their trunks with bricks to stabilize the tree. The trees may look odd but they are very healthy.

Surprisingly they are not the oldest trees in Boston. I think that title belongs to a bonsai tree in Arnold Arboretum which was planted in Japan in 1737 and later brought to Massachusetts. But even that bonsai is young compared to a pear tree planted by the Puritan leader John Endecott in the mid-1600s which is still alive in Danvers, Massachusetts today.

All the trees I've mentioned so far are domestic and were planted by humans. There are wild trees that are even older. The oldest tree in Massachusetts is a 450+ year old hemlock in the Mohawk Trail State Forest. Trees of similar ages can also be found in Sherburne, Vermont and New Hebron, New Hampshire. Most of the original trees in this region have been cut down but there are still a few pockets of old growth forest left.

I don't have much else to say. Trees are amazing beings. They're good for the atmosphere, good for animals and birds, and good for our mental health. Maybe some day the tree in your backyard will be hundreds of years old!

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