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.

Pete Smith

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