A Brief History of (Texas) Trees

“Texas…it’s a whole ‘nother country.” That was the state tourism slogan when I moved there at the start of my forestry career in the late 1980’s. It’s a catchy reference to the decade when Texas was an independent nation, before becoming the 28th state in 1845. The tourism campaign also highlighted the vastness of the state: its deserts, mountains and forests; its cultural heritage and diversity; its tourist attractions, and everything else that pointed to being “big.” In fact, the more recognizable – and unofficial – state motto is, “Everything’s Bigger in Texas!”

I like American history, which I trace back to my Philadelphia upbringing. Just walking to elementary school in my neighborhood took my friends and I through portions of Revolutionary War battlefields. Historical signs in front of existing homes and storefronts pointed to the fact that “George Washington slept here.” The round pebbles we dug out of the soil as kids surely were “red-coat” musket balls, dropped where a soldier was dropped in 1777. Our imaginations ran wild! I found out later that those “musket balls” we used as slingshot ammunition were merely a product of the region’s geology – red garnets, weathered from local fieldstone. But living and breathing in that southeast corner of “Penn’s Woods” in one of the oldest American cities instilled a sense of wonder about the past…and of trees.

Twenty years later when I started my forestry career, I lived in the eastern portion of the Lone Star state, where history seemed entirely avoidable. Old homes were few and far between, often demolished to make room for a new and – Texas-style – bigger houses. The trees and forests were so commonplace in the region that few people even blinked when they were removed for a road or a new shopping mall or other signs of human progress. I felt homesick.

So I was gratified to find on my office bookshelf one particular volume that shared both my love of history and my love for trees: Famous Trees of Texas, first published in 1970 by my employer, the Texas Forest Service (TFS). It chronicled the stories of historical events and Texas heroes through the stories of a handful of named trees, silent witnesses to the events of bygone times. Spread out across the state, these trees also helped me learn the diversity of tree species and the geography of Texas, from the Red River to the Rio Grande and the Llano Estacado (or “Staked Plain”) to the river sloughs (pronounced “slews”) of the Pineywoods.

Those early lessons and stories would serve me well in my career with TFS (now the Texas A&M Forest Service), for whom I worked for more than 26 years. As I moved from a field office, where my duties included fighting forest fires and planting trees, to the agency headquarters and a new role in urban forestry, I also became the coordinator of the Texas Big Tree Registry – a list of the biggest tree for each species in the state. “What could be a better job than this?” I often asked, pinching myself. “I get to help find, measure, and document the very biggest trees in a state that knows a thing or two about big things!”

As duty would have it, one of my first trips as coordinator was to re-measure the state champion live oak (Quercus virginiana) – at one time a National Champion – near the town of Rockport along the Gulf Coast. It’s so well-known as a Texas giant, it’s simply called, “The Big Tree,” and is a cultural touchstone for Texans, inspiring family trips and the question, “Have you seen The Big Tree yet? You have to go see it!” Live oak is one of the most common tree species in Texas, so most people are familiar with how slow they grow. To visit one with a trunk that’s 35 feet around is simply awe-inspiring! “How old is it?” many will ask, which is tougher to answer. All we know is that the tree served as a landmark and rendezvous point for Native Americans along the coast for generations before colonization. Some estimate its age at more than 1,000 years.

The Big Tree

“The Big Tree” at Goose Island State Park near Rockport, Texas

Which is why The Big Tree was also included in Famous Trees of Texas. It’s legendary size and age inspired historical legends, as well. Early coastal explorers such as Cabeza de Vaca (1528) may have traveled past this landmark tree on his eight-year walk to Mexico City. Legend or historical fact, this story deserves its place in the pages of the book, which is dedicated to tell the stories of trees that “have witnessed exciting events or eras in Texas history.”

At a presentation this past spring, I was asked – along with the book’s principal author, Gretchen Riley – to name our favorite tree, as if choosing just one is even possible! But since you asked, and since we dedicated most of the final chapter (“Everything Is Bigger”) to those trees that have been so big for so long that they have become famous in their own right, I’ll share one last story….

National Champion

The National Champion Runyon’s Esenbeckia

As an admitted “tree geek,” I really enjoyed hunting for Texas’ rarest tree species. Owing to its “bigness,” Texas has 11 ecoregions, including a small portion of subtropical brushlands in deep South Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. In 1929, when that region was being cleared for agriculture – primarily citrus orchards for which the region is still famous – a local botanist, Robert Runyon, collected samples from an unknown tree along the bank of a nearby resaca and sent the samples to the Smithsonian museum for identification. That new species was named Esenbeckia runyonii in his honor, a new species in the citrus family, sometimes called limoncillo.

He had also collected seed for his private collection, which was a good thing because when he went back for more samples, the grove of trees had been cleared and he could not locate any additional populations of the species in the United States. He sprouted the seeds and planted one of them in the backyard of his Brownsville home. This tree – now the reigning National Champion for the species – was, and may still be, the rarest tree in Texas and possibly the entire U.S.

Tour Des Trees

Last week, Arbor Day Foundation staff members Pete Smith and Matt Harris rode in the Tour Des Trees bicycle ride through Wisconsin as Team Arbor Day. During the seven day, 585 mile trek, Pete kept a journal recapping the day’s events.

Day 1: Milwaukee to Madison

petematt bikeWith a windy spring and summer in Lincoln, my training has taught me one useful lesson: the ride home is a lot more fun if you begin by heading into the wind.

Today’s 92-mile stage didn’t provide that, since Madison lies directly west of Milwaukee and we stared down a relentless 25-mph headwind for the entire day.

We made a brief stop in Waukesha (a Tree City USA community) for a tree planting ceremony. We concluded our night with dinner and a movie at the University of Wisconsin-Madison arboretum, where we dedicated a tree to the memory of the parents of Wisconsin state forestry coordinator, Dick Rideout.

Day 2: Madison to Wisconsin Dells

group treeAfter a tree dedication at the state capitol, we rode through the UW-Madison campus to trails that led out of town before our first climb up the Blue Mounds. The rocky hills were untouched by the Wisconsin Ice Sheet that ground down most of the surrounding landscape, and posed a steep challenge for our tour riders. Our tour director Paul called this stage the Queen’s Day— homage to the famous tour in France each July, referring to the toughest day on the tour. From the fast decent from Blue Mound State Park, we rolled through bucolic farmland and past wooded hillsides, to the toughest climbs of the day up to and out of Devil’s Lake State Park. Steep, switchback roads that refused to show an end in sight, pulling our modest peloton apart and stretching riders for miles.

But all who wanted to were able to finish the 105 miles of all that Wisconsin has to offer in natural beauty!

Day 3: Wisconsin Dells to Stevens Point

flowersWisconsin has already shown us many of her natural wonders, from bucolic farmland to wooded hills to wind and rain, but today she showed her milder side. We headed north along the Wisconsin River to Stevens Point.

Professor Elwood Pricklethorn’s (aka fellow rider, Warren Hoselton) lunchtime lesson to the children of Nekoosa on the wonders of photosynthesis was a big hit! So was the stop for ice cream near the end of our 87-mile “active recovery” day. We visited the UW-Stevens Point – a Tree Campus USA recognized campus for dinner—which graduates more students in urban forestry than anywhere else. We dedicated a tree to longtime professor Bob Miller with a ceremonial “watering” using Wisconsin’s finest!

Day 4: Stevens Point to Green Bay

giant hambAfter a tree dedication with local scouts, we found our way east along quiet country roads, past country chapels, gently descending all the way to Green Bay on a perfect summer day.

Our 100-mile effort was the fastest of the week so far, with our small group averaging 17 mph–up considerably from the 13 mph efforts of the first two days! Fair and gentle winds, flat terrain and good roads with light traffic made this century a memorable one.

Seymour, WI, claims to be the home of the first hamburger, memorialized in large form just at the edge of town. And as a nightcap, we toured the not-so-frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.  And if the bus shows up to take us back to the hotel, I may even get some sleep tonight!

Day 5: Green Bay to Sturgeon Bay

911 tree plantingToday’s weather brought back memories of the day we left DC in 2001 after the National Urban Forestry Conference, only to be followed a couple days later by the tragedy of 9/11. The urban forestry community lost one of our own that day, Christine Snyder, who boarded Flight 93 and perished in a field in Pennsylvania. Joined by the city forester and mayor, we planted a tree at Tree City USA community Green Bay’s 9/11 memorial to honor all those we lost that day, a sapling grown from one of the only trees to emerge from the rubble of the twin towers at Ground Zero–a flowering pear tree.

A short recovery ride for most, a paltry 60 miles to the hotel.

But a hardy few of us took the scenic “bonus miles” tour of Door County to peek out along the shores of Lake Michigan, an additional 27 miles!

Day 6: Sturgeon Bay to Port Washington

lakeThere was a great deal of anticipation for today’s ride south, partly because it’s almost the end of the tour, but mostly because our legs are tired and the stage was 120 miles long.

Many riders left early to avoid being taken off the road at 5pm— myself included—watching the hazy sun rise above the glass-smooth surface of Sturgeon Bay. With Lake Michigan on our left the entire day, mostly clear skies and light winds, our progress was hampered only by our appetites–amply satisfied at each rest stop!

I want to pause to recognize the great work of Dick Rideout, the state urban forestry coordinator for the Wisconsin DNR. Dick has made the Tree City USA program the bedrock for community forestry in his state, and we witnessed his guiding hand as we rolled through dozens of Tree City USA communities along our tour. We heard mayors sing the praises of their city forester, in Madison, Stevens Point and Green Bay. They know what trees mean to their community and the importance of the TREE Fund. We riders are proud to represent the professions of arboriculture and urban forestry at the many events we conduct along our route.

Day 7: Port Washington to Milwaukee

group challengeOur final day is as much pomp-and-circumstance as it is a bike ride, just a short 42-mile “noodle” through leafy lakeside suburbs, staging at several spots to keep the 80+ riders together for the mass roll-in at the International Tree Climbing Championships being held at Mount Mary University. We had time for group photos of the various teams, as well as those sponsored by the various ISA chapters. We can be grateful for having the strength of mind and legs to pedal through more than 600 miles on behalf of the TREE Fund. As donors, you helped all of us raise more than $513,000 to support tree research and education projects around the country!

We can bask in the glory of rolling into the climbing championships to the cheers and applause of the real athletes of the day–those climbing arborists who work daily to care for our urban trees. This is the joy we share with one another, brought together by the love of trees and riding bicycles.


It seems like eons ago we left Milwaukee headed west. Time and miles melt away, leaving us with precious memories…and friends, both new and old. This was my third consecutive tour and I think I’m finally getting the hang of it. I could tell when I filled out the informal awards ballot on Thursday night and knew who the “Most Improved Rider” (Laurie Skul) and the “Best New Rider” (Karen Jenkins) were. I think I could recite Professor Pricklethorn’s tree blessing in my sleep! These are my friends. Now and forever. I am indebted to them–and to you, dear sponsor for your support–and I offer my hand and a hug to you all…. Until next year, and the Sunshine State, I remain… Your friend in trees, Pete