Historic osage-orange tree

“I have some bad news. The city of Kewanee [Illinois] will take down the big hedge tree on Tuesday. Safety hazard they say.”

Even though the tree is not a beauty, and its location is not scenic, this story has a happy ending due to the diligence of a dedicated arborist and the speed of email communication.

The osage-orange tree is the lone survivor of a hedgerow planted c. 1840, a concept promoted by Illinois College professor Jonathan Baldwin Turner that became the shelterbelt system saving America’s soils from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Because of its significance, Illinois arborist Guy Sternberg led a rally to preserve the 170-year-old tree.

Guy first heard of the tree’s fate on Nov. 21 from the email quoted above, just days before its scheduled removal. He quickly forwarded the email to 250 of his ‘green’ contacts and asked, “How many of you …can jump on this, contact Kewanee, and help persuade them to step back and think it over a little more?”

How many? He received about 50 emails within a 48-hour period, and the city received about 40 emails from arborists, forestry professors, and other professionals contributing their expert opinions and support. Others from across the country offered the city donations and technical assistance to help preserve the tree.

At the end of the two-day email blitz, the tree was saved.

The campaign to preserve the tree branched out into other forms of electronic communication. Two blogs, one on the Better Homes and Garden website and another on the Plantra website, include pictures of the tree after safety pruning on November 24. Also online are articles from the Star Courier newspaper and three podcast interviews with Guy Sternberg recorded on the Home Grown Tomatoes [no longer online]┬áchannel at Justin.tv.com. The tree even has its own “Save the Osage-Orange Tree in Kewanee, IL” Facebook page with over 130 fans, including the mayor of Kewanee. Donations to the “Kewanee Osage-Orange Fund” are also accepted through PayPal.

Preservation of a historic tree such as the osage-orange is just short of a miracle. Trees are among the least-understood historic features, often removed because of safety fears or to make way for new construction.

If not for the Internet, would the tree have been saved? Perhaps…but it’s doubtful. The speed of electronic communication quickly brought together a qualified and committed community ready to address the city’s safety concerns and provide assistance for the tree’s long-term preservation.

So, how rare is this? Anyone heard of any other historic trees saved by electronic communication?

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National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
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