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Chris Feeley, Forestry, (515) 294-6739,
Jean McGuire, Continuing Education and Communication Services, (515) 294-7033,

Yard and Garden Column for the Week Beginning Aug. 1

Iowa’s Oldest Living Residents

By Chris Feeley
Extension Forester
Iowa State University Extension

Trees are Iowa’s oldest living residents and many have witnessed the birth of our state. During the last few months I have had the privilege of teaching thousands of school children the importance of trees and the history they provide. For example, ancient Egyptian text describes trees being transplanted with balls of soil more than 4000 years ago. Today, we would call that a balled-and-burlapped tree. In the United States, the first recorded public shade tree planting occurred in 1646 along a road connecting Boston and Roxbury, Massachusetts.

Trees link the past to the present and are witnesses to the conditions of the past. There are many champion trees in the United States. A champion tree is the largest known tree of that species. American Forests ( maintains the list of the nation’s biggest trees.

Big Trees
Iowa has two trees on that list. One of Iowa’s national big trees is a European black alder located in Davenport. This national champ has a trunk circumference of 9 feet, a height of 70 feet, and an average crown spread of 41 feet. The other national champion is a cucumber magnolia in Waukon. This tree has a trunk circumference of 25 feet, a height of 75 feet, and an average crown spread of 83 feet.

A big tree in Iowa that is not a national champion, but well worth a visit is an American chestnut in Burlington. During the 1900s, a fungus causing chestnut blight was introduced into New York on imported Asian chestnut trees. By 1940, most American chestnuts had died. The tree in Dankwardt Park escaped the blight and stands today with a trunk circumference of 13 feet, 6 inches, a height of 80 feet, and an average crown spread of 63 feet.

Another Iowa big tree is an American sycamore in Geode State Park in Des Moines County near Burlington. This state champion has a trunk circumference of 21 feet 7 inches, a height of 102 feet, and an average crown spread of 83 feet.

Historical Trees
The rarest, historical tree in the United States is the bristlecone pine, which is found in the White Mountain regions of Arizona and California. The oldest bristlecone pine is nearly 5000 years old, making it the world’s oldest living member. On average, bristlecone pines are 60 feet tall and have a trunk circumference of 36 feet.
In Iowa, we are very fortunate to have many trees that have either made the Iowa Big Tree List or marked a significant point in history.

The Plow In the Oak Tree
One Iowa tree of historical interest is the plow in the oak tree located on Highway 71 near Exira. Legend says that a farmer was out plowing his field when a group of Union soldiers marched by headed to fight in the Civil War. Feeling patriotic, the farmer leaned his plow against a bur oak tree and joined the soldiers in battle. Unfortunately, the farmer never returned and nearly 130 years later we can still see this part of history marked inside the bur oak tree where the plow remains. That’s right, the tree grew around the plow and we are still able to see the hitch and part of the plow blade. Definitely worth a visit if you are in that part of Iowa.

The Council Oak Tree
Besides historical trees, we have trees that were historical landmarks in Iowa. For example, the Council Oak Tree. The Council Oak Tree was a bur oak located near the Big Sioux and Missouri Rivers. Legend says that explorers called meetings with the Native Americans under this large tree. The last Native American Council meeting under this tree was held in 1854. The tree was 503 years old when it was struck by lightening and the remains bulldozed in 1971.

Trees planted today can record our history for future generation. There are many books and Web sites that talk about big trees of the United States. The list for Iowa is maintained by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry ( Perhaps you know of a larger tree than those on the list. If so, measure that tree and complete the nomination form on that Web site. Who knows, perhaps you have an Iowa big tree or even a national champion big tree on your property.


Editors: There is no photo this week.

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