CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The tree arrived in a little box and without fanfare close to four decades ago, a seedling given by a brother in California to his sister here. For years it grew in a pot until Cary Ellen Howie decided, finally, it was big enough to go in the ground.
And there it is today, rising gracefully to 51 feet, about five stories tall, in her backyard. In a city filled with pines, poplars and oaks soaring to 100 feet and higher, one might not think twice about a tree half that height.
But this one is different. It's a redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, native to the very edge of California's misty Pacific coast. There, the tallest of the species grow over 300 feet. Here, Cary Ellen Howie and others who love and admire trees are happy with 51 feet, pleased the redwood has prospered this long in this Piedmont clay soil, Southern summer heat and long stretches of drought.
"I think it's really beautiful," says Howie, a poet, of her tree with cinnamon-brown bark and gracefully drooping layers of lacy evergreen foliage. Beyond the beauty there is the value of rarity.
`A unique tree'
"It's positively a unique tree," says Dr. William Logan, a Charlotte dermatologist who is chairman of the Mecklenburg Treasure Tree committee.
The group awards the title of Treasure Tree to unique trees notable for their size or rarity. Howie's tree is one of three coast redwoods in Charlotte designated as Treasure Trees. The other two are at Bartlett Tree Research Labs on Hamilton Road and the Van Landingham Estate on The Plaza. The Treasure Tree list comprises 123 trees of many kinds, including oak, magnolia, elm, ginkgo, holly, crape myrtle, ash, pine, poplar and pecan.
Howie's brother, Eugene Spake of Mill Valley, Calif., bought the little tree seedling in the mid-'60s and mailed it to her in a small box. It was the first redwood she'd ever seen. Howie planted and tended it carefully in a pot for four or five years, even bringing it indoors to a window for the winter.
The careful gardener
"I didn't want to take any chances," she recalls. When the tree got about 3 feet tall, she planted it outside - and continued to hover over it, making it feel at home in such a different place.
When it didn't rain, she watered it carefully.
She did no tilling or digging in the root zone.
On hot summer days, she was out with the hose spraying the foliage.
"I knew that it grew naturally with the mist of the ocean, and I wanted it to feel some semblance of home," Howie said.
After Hurricane Hugo blew down trees all around Charlotte in 1989, she was thankful the redwood stood unscathed. Not a limb, not even a tiny branch came down in the historic storm. "I was so grateful," she recalls.
Two species of sequoia, coast redwood and giant sequoia, are the only remnants of about 40 species that flourished in the Northern Hemisphere millions of years ago.
Logan, of the Treasure Tree committee, believes the Howie redwood prospered because of the good care it received over the past decades.
"She has taken such good care of that tree, really done a wonderful job with the tree and it has really benefited.
"Whether it will ever be the size of [the California redwoods], well, I sincerely doubt that. This is not its ideal place. It's pretty dry here. And we don't have that nice offshore fog," Logan said.
`Very respectable tree'
"This will be a nice, very respectable tree," he added.
How well it will adapt to the Piedmont climate in the long term remains to be seen.
"We'll have to come back in about 500 or 600 years," says Logan, "and then we'll know." It was a reference to the redwoods' famed longevity.
Howie hopes that, whatever happens as Charlotte continues to develop, the redwood will be protected and grow not just for decades to come, but for centuries. The way they do in California.