County heralds trees in Centennial Park

Labels: By using plaques to identify different species, Howard officials hope to educate people who frequent the park.

April 25, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Jim Rose, amateur arborist, thinks a sure way to interest people in nature is to introduce them to trees.

Howard County is poised to do the honors at its most popular park, where hundreds of visitors pass by hundreds of trees every day.

No longer will joggers, bikers and stroller-pushing parents who frequent Centennial Park have to guess at the names of the inhabitants around the 52-acre lake. Newly installed plaques on the northeast side of the water offer key details for 23 species, from the towering American beech that is two centuries old to the 5-year-old stand of sumacs.

At 11 a.m. tomorrow -- Arbor Day -- County Executive James N. Robey will officially open this "arboretum without walls" in Ellicott City while members of Howard's Forest Conservancy District Board give tree seedlings to passers-by.

Rose, a Columbia resident who is a member of the Howard County Forestry Board, hopes the plaques will thrust the trees into view for all those joggers and walkers who see only a hazy background of green.

"It's a way of introducing a whole community to the individual," he said. "You get an awareness about the natural environment ... much more easily if you get on more familiar terms with the environment."

The county's arborist, Steve Parker, can attest to the power of connecting with trees. A childhood spent in the woods of North Carolina -- scrambling up sturdy boughs and playing in the shade -- made a lasting impression on him.

"As an adult, I have the greatest job in the world because I do the same thing and I get paid for it," he said.

Though Howard's forest cover dropped 17 percent between 1985 and 1997 as population boomed, the county has won awards for tree-friendly practices. Three crews head out daily to prune trees in Howard neighborhoods, eventually touching all 162,000 that grow beside residential streets.

This year, the county won a "People Loving and Nurturing Trees" award from the Maryland Community Forestry Council and earned the right to call itself a "Tree City USA" community for the 12th time in a row.

"Oh, that's excellent," said Gary Brienzo, information co- ordinator for the National Arbor Day Foundation in Nebraska, which distributes the Tree City awards. "For a municipality to get it for 12 years shows real consistency."

Rose began tagging Howard County trees five years ago with laminated paper and fishing line, hoping to spark an interest in people wandering through public woods.

Centennial joins about a dozen other tree-identification sites in the county -- the one he wanted to use all along because 1.4 million visitors stop by every year, according to county estimates.

In Parker's opinion, the Ellicott City park is ideal for a living exhibit. Gnarled specimens 60 feet tall stand like patriarchs overseeing their realms.

Young upstarts have sprung to life nearby in what he believes was an open field 15 years ago, an example of how a forest regains ground after land is left alone.

This story of forest succession has been playing out at Centennial since the county opened the 325-acre park in 1987.

First, the fast-growing trees took root in grassy areas -- pines, black locusts and other whippersnappers.

The hardwoods entered fashionably late as always, eight or 10 years later, a parade of oaks, beeches and hickories.

"You can see the forest is gradually coming back, and the stages it's going through," Parker said. "We have trees that are anywhere from 2 to 3 inches in diameter to trees that are 30 to 40 inches in diameter."

At least 60 species grow in the park, and in four years he intends to have one example of each rendered user-friendly with the metal equivalent of name tags.

First to be labeled was the smooth, gray American beech -- four people wide, 10 people tall and tattooed with hundreds of initials, many enclosed by hearts. "MARRY ME," beseeches one message.

It stands between the water and the paved pathway that winds around the lake, its lofty branches so large that one reaches clear across the trail and touches a neighbor on the other side.

Striding by this week, Columbia resident Mary Maurey noticed the newly installed plaque and was glad someone thought to identify her favorite tree in Centennial.

"Trees have energy to me," she said. "That one is powerful."

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