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?
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.
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.
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.