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Can This Tree Be Saved?

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The Climbing Tree
The Climbing Tree

Generations of local children have been drawn, magnet-like, to a remarkable tree in Verona Park aptly dubbed the Climbing Tree. If you’ve ever walked by it with a child, you know this many-limbed wonder, whose branches defy the rule governing most trees, which dictate that branches reach up toward the sky. Instead, the limbs of this unusual specimen of European Beech grow straight out horizontally from its trunk, providing abundant comfortable ledges for climbing, walking and bouncing. And the branches are spaced closely together, providing the perfect stairs for little legs to climb. When my children were small, they preferred it to the more structured fun of the playground, and on a nice day there would be swarms of kids literally hanging out on its branches.

Lately, however, things have been looking grim for the climbing tree. While it hasn’t been spray-painted with a red ‘X’ like several other park trees apparently slated for felling, so many of its dead branches have been pruned that it is a sad shadow of its former self. Watching the tree’s rapid decline has made me wonder: What happened to put the tree in free fall (if you’ll pardon the pun) after so many years? Is there any hope for it? And can we start a new one growing for future generations?

Ulcer damage
Ulcer damage

According to Deborah Jacobsen, horticultural chair of the Verona Park Conservancy, this natural wonder that sits near the waterfall in Verona Park has been opening its arms to Essex County’s young people for well on 300 years. No one knows who planted it or exactly when, but it was here before the land was selected as a site by Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscape architecture firm in the early 1900s, and even before it was developed as a farm and gristmill in the early 1800s.

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The tree’s decline has not been lost on Jacobsen and the Conservancy, a group of volunteers dedicated to maintaining and improving the park. The main problem, according to Jacobsen, is not the initials that have been carved into the tree by generations of Verona schoolchildren, but the compacting of the soil on its roots, caused by the tree’s location so close to the macadam footpath. “With so much foot traffic on top of the roots for so many years, the soil has become unnaturally compacted, so the roots can’t get the nutrients, water and air they need,’’ she says. Soil erosion has also taken its toll: When the tree was planted the land was no doubt level, but now it is sloped, exposing more of its root system than is natural. “The root system is the hub, where the tree gets its nutrients,” Jacobsen explains. The large ulcer on the macadam side of the trunk is confirmation that root damage is the culprit.

Exposed roots
Exposed roots

For the past year, the VPC has been employing Herculean measures to try to save this ancient and much-loved fagus sylvatica, using money earned through fundraising and even personal funds. Working with arborist Steve Schilling from SavATree, the group has tried deep-root fertilizing, air spading (where large needles containing are stuck deep into the root zone to get air and nutrients into the soil), wound treatment for the ulcer, and three separate prunings.

Saving the climbing tree has been a mission close to Jacobsen’s heart: She is a Verona native who spent many happy hours in the climbing tree as a child. “It was thrilling,” she says of her childhood escapades there. “Every kid in the world likes to climb a tree.” Now, as a professional horticulturalist and master gardener, her appreciation of the iconic European Beech tree has only grown.

Sadly, however, she has come to accept that, ultimately, it is “not going to make it.” While the VPC is working to give the tree as long a life as possible, Jacobsen is now devoting her time to researching the purchase of a good-sized replacement tree and a new location, with more favorable growing conditions. The VPC is also planning a commemorative plaque or remembrance at the site of the old tree. But the present tree is unique and literally irreplaceable. “While fagus sylvatica typically do have many low-lying limbs, those amazing lateral branches are unique to this particular specimen,” says Jacobsen. “I am just so moved by this tree.”

For information on how to help with efforts to plant a new Climbing Tree, contact the VPC at veronapark.org.

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Julia Martin Langan
Julia Martin Langanhttps://myveronanj.com
Julia Martin Langan moved to Verona in 1989. A long-time journalist, she has been on the staff of Money, Sports Illustrated, Bride’s and Redbook magazines. Her articles on health and parenting appear in a variety of national publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, Parents, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, Self and Family Circle. She and her husband Greg have three school-aged children, and are members of Our Lady of the Lake Church. You can reach Julia at [email protected]

7 COMMENTS

  1. I was wondering why branches had been cut off the last time my daughter climbed the tree this summer. We were sad to see its health declining and will sorely miss the tree when it’s removed. Please keep us posted on plans for the tree, I’d like my younger daughter to climb it once before it’s gone forever. We were lucky to have such a great gift as that tree is, it’s as if it were made just for our enjoyment.

  2. We too noticed as we walked by the climbing tree a few weeks ago, I believe some red x’s on it. Our kids briefly walked over to the tree to say a quick goodbye. The tree was a famous landmark in our family went we went to the park. It will be missed because we aren’t aware of many other climbing trees in the area. Can anyone share others? Thank you climbing tree for some cute memories!

  3. This is very sad!!!I can’t stand it! This tree is the best tree in the whole U.S.A! I love this tree and would hate for it to have to go. Somebody should speak up about this,and soon because I’ve been climbing the tree since before preschool and still do. Planting a new one will take many,many,many years until it gets tall and big enough to climb. SAVE THE CLIMBING TREE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. I grew up in Verona and graduated VHS in 1973. Verona was the best town to grow up in. It was safe you oould walk the park anytime of day or night. My initials are in that tree someone. It will be sad for people to go back no matter how many years to see their initials or words carved on the tree. It will be sad for the generation Verona has now and future generations not to do the same. PROUD TO HAVE GROWN UP IN VERONA

  5. I will miss this tree. I have many childhood memories of this tree. I do not live in Verona, but am in the area. I still walk in Verona Park from time to time. I was surprized to see that the tree was still there, but it didn’t seem to be doing too well. Though I would not like to see it go, I know that it doesn’t seem possible to stay. I hope VPS can find a new tree, and perhaps a different location that isn’t as close to a foot path. I think the new tree will be rised with a lot of love and care because the first climbing tree touched a lot of lives.

  6. I grew up in Verona, across the street from the park. I graduated VHS in 1985. I have fond memories of the park and this tree. I too carved my initials somewhere on the tree. So sad to see its decline and to see that future generations won’t be able to enjoy this tree. I hope that a new tree will be planted to replace this one. Although replacing may not be the best word. A new tree for future generations to climb.

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