A number of Council Oaks dot the countryside of the United States, including, until quite recently, a 300 year old Oak on the campus of the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire.  The tree was used in the old days as a meeting spot by Ojibwe and Lakota tribes to discuss truces and peace agreements.  When the University of Wisconsin built up around it, the tree became quite literally a symbol of the University and an artist’s drawing of the tree was incorporated into the design of the University’s seal. Students met regularly beneath its branches, and graduating nursing students would hang their uniforms from its branches (and then presumably dash for cover).

This tree succumbed to a fierce wind storm in 1987, however a replacement oak tree was planted in a nearby spot, close to the Niagra Creek on the lower campus.  The new Council Oak was planted by members of local Native American tribes in a special Earth Day ceremony several years ago.  The new Council Oak is a sacred and important tribal symbol.

The tree was the subject of much controversy lately, when plans for a new student center called for the destruction or removal of the tree.  Native American groups strongly opposed the idea, along with student environmental groups, and a number of concerned citizens who had fond memories of the tree’s precedessor.  While reluctant to revise their plans due to “additional time and money,” in the end, the University agreed to spare the new Council Oak to much fanfare.

You know, developers, if you really want to save time and money in the future, DON’T SUGGEST CUTTING DOWN HERITAGE TREES.

(Thanks to my Dad, Tom Pedersen, a UW – Eau Claire alumnus, for the news tip…)

Nurse Uniforms Hanging in the Council Oak

The Survivor

Originally uploaded by Jason Daniel Brown

The Survivor Tree is an American Elm (Ulmus americana) living in the Oklahoma City National Monument. It is thought to be about 102 years old.

The Survivor Tree was the only shade tree in the parking lot of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma which was destroyed in the Oklahoma City Bombing, on April 19, 1995. The explosion killed 168 people and injured over 800. The tree was enormously damaged in the blast and its aftermath – the initial explosion ripped off many of its branches and covered the tree in ash and debris, embedding glass deep into its trunk. The ensuing fires from the building blackened the trunk and it was left for dead. When a memorial was held a year later, however, the tree was noticed to be blooming again. Almost immediately, the tree was heralded as a proud symbol of survival in the face of destruction and was granted significant protections from the city which incorporated it into its National Memorial. The tree is now thriving again, blossoming under careful management. It presides over several young trees planted near by to commemorate lives lost in the rescue attempts.

An inscription at the bottom of the tree reads:
“The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us.”

The Survivor Tree in 1995

The Survivor Tree in 1995

The neighbors are watching

Originally uploaded by lablover47

Occasionally on Heritage Trees, I will post an elegy to a fallen tree, such as this recent victim of vandalism on Lake Superior’s North Shore. Lovingly dubbed “The Honking Tree” by local residents, this White Pine (Pinus strobus) was located two miles south of Two Harbors, in the far north of my home state of Minnesota. It was a popular local tradition to honk while driving by the tree, which stood out as the only tree on the median of the Two Harbors Expressway. It was also called “Charlie’s Tree” after a chief road inspector who would eat his lunch beneath the tree during the expressway’s construction in the 1960s. The tree’s age was approximately 113 years. Vandals, as yet uncaught, cut down the tree in April of this year in a shameful act of needless destruction.

Local residents quickly banded together, however, and a memorial for the tree is in the works. (I’ll post an update when announced). As you can see from this photo, people have left tokens of appreciation at the tree’s trunk. I hope the city of Two Harbors plants a new tree close by – a new tree would be the best memorial.

A Facebook group was created to remember the Honking Tree – you can visit their page here.

My appreciation to Ben Hoganson for the news tip.

The Honking Tree when it was still standing

The Honking Tree when it was still standing

Suicide Oak

Originally uploaded by Voodoo Chile NO

The Suicide Oak is another famous Live Oak (Quericus virginana) living in City Park, New Orleans. (I recently featured one of its companion oaks, The Dueling Oak, another prominent tree in City Park). I have not found age and height information, but it looks to be of approximate age with the Dueling Oak, which is 300 years old.

As its name suggests, the Suicide Oak was a popular spot for taking one’s life in the old, Creole days of New Orleans. Spurned lovers and bankrupted fortunes ended their lives beneath the tree, usually by pistol or poison. Creole honor, as we saw at the Dueling Oak, regularly demanded blood. I have not found any information about specific suicides at the tree, and would welcome the information should anyone have any.

Today, the Suicide Oak is easily visited in City Park, New Orleans, which houses one of the finest Live Oak forests in the world. The entire Park was flooded with brackish water in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, killing off quite a few trees and damaging most of the others. The Suicide Oak lost two of its lower limbs, but survived. If you wish to help the park conserve its trees, you can volunteer or become a member of its Friends association at this website.

Suicide Oak 1

Lahaina Banyan Tree

Originally uploaded by Baileyblack

The Lahaina Banyan Tree (Ficus benghalensis) is a massive tree living in its own designated park off of Front Street, downtown Lahaina, the main town on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Banyan trees are fascinating trees in that they drop roots from their branches, which can eventually form into their own trunks. By such a fashion, this Banyan tree now has twelve major trunks in addition to its core and covers over 200 square feet. It is over 60 feet high and shades 2/3 of an acre.

The Lahaina Banyan tree was imported form India in 1873 and planted in the Courthouse Square in Lahaina to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Protestant mission in Maui. When the missionaries first arrived in Maui from New England, Lahaina was the governing city of the islands (later moved to Honolulu), and the primary mission was based here. The city’s sheriff planted the then 8 ft tree on April 23rd of 1873. This makes the tree approximately 150 years old or so. It has since become one of the largest Banyan trees in the United States.

The tree is well-protected today by the City of Lahaina, which granted the tree its own park and regularly supports its branches with poles. Art fairs and other community events are regularly held beneath its shade. (See the Lahaina Arts Society website for details of its bi-monthly art fairs beneath the tree).

 Lahaina Banyan Tree Park seen from a distance

Lahaina Banyan Tree Park seen from a distance


The Big Tree is a Live Oak (Quericus virginiana) which lives on Goose Island State Park, north of the city of Rockport, on the Gulf of Mexico. While its name lacks imagination, the tree is quite impressive – it is generally thought to be over 1000 years old, with a very hefty girth at 35 feet, a height of 44 ft, and a crown spread of about 90 ft. This makes it the largest live oak in the state of Texas.

A variety of colorful, unconfirmed rumors surround this tree. Legend has it that the Karankawa Indians used the area beneath the tree to conduct cannibalistic rituals. The last Karankawas, however, were wiped out by colonists in the 1850s before anyone thought to take down their history. The Big Tree was also supposedly used as a meeting spot for pirates along the Gulf of Mexico, as a hanging tree in the old days, and as a rendezvous for Commanche Indians.  Personally, I think all of these rumors have some basis to truth in them – an enormous tree such as this one generally attracts attention and makes an natural spot for meetings, rituals, hangings and, well, eating the flesh of the deceased.  (Cannibalistic sidenote: The Karankawas, like many cannibals, engaged in the activity in order to magically assume the power of a deceased enemy.  They certainly didn’t eat humans as a food source).

The Big Tree was featured in an episode of Ripley’s Believe It or Not and was also a charter member of the Live Oak Society.  You can see the tree today quite easily by visiting Goose Island State Park where it, and the surrounding land, are protected and cared for by the State of Texas.

hare krishna tree

Originally uploaded by joujoubee

The Hare Krishna Tree is another historic elm in New York City proper (also see The Hangman’s Elm from earlier). The Hare Krishna Tree is an American Elm (Ulmus americana) of undetermined age, but with the significant height and canopy coverage characteristic of its species. It lives in Tompkins Square Park, which has a significant population of mature American Elm trees that survived the spread of Dutch Elm disease in the 1930s.

The Hare Krishna Tree is a sacred site to followers of the Hare Krishna religion for it was here, in 1966, that the movement’s founder, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, held the first outdoor chanting session in the United States. The famous Krishna chant, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare,” was first uttered beneath the shade of this impressive Elm. Adherents danced, chanted, and prayed beneath the tree for two hours on October 9, 1966. Among those in attendance was the famous Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg.

To this day, adherents of the Hare Krishna faith pay tribute to the tree, leaving garlands, flowers, and other tokens of appreciation at its base.  The East Village Parks Conservancy helps to care for the Elm trees in the park – they are an all volunteer organization, so if you live in New York City, consider helping them out.

by David Shankbone

by David Shankbone