Treasuring a chip off the old Wye

True Tales From Everyday Living

February 18, 2007|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Reporter

The tree in the front yard of my parents' New Hampshire home cannot yet be called majestic, though the potential certainly is there. The oak stands about 25 feet tall, and it seems tough; the leaves, brown and limp, stubbornly cling to its branches long after the first winter frost has settled into the New England ground.

It is not just any oak, this tree that was a Christmas gift for my father, meant to last a lifetime. It is the child of Maryland's famous Wye Oak, the official state tree and, at the time, the largest White Oak in the nation, the one that toppled in a thunderstorm on June 6, 2002, at the age of 460.

The still narrow trunk and branches from the tree growing in New Hampshire soil sprouted from an acorn that dropped from the Wye Oak in 1991, one of roughly 12,000 that fell the final time the tree produced seeds, an indicator that the tree was slowly dying.

State forestry officials have sold Wye Oak seedlings for years, but in 1993, when the last load turned 2, they made a particularly big deal of the event. They sold the sprouts for $25, and the state included a certificate from then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a long history and drawing of the tree and a gift card that said, "A piece of history is yours to grow."

Pieces of the Wye Oak have been made into oyster knives and used for a desk in the governor's office. Others have become crosses in local churches, carvings and the official state seal on the Talbot County Courthouse.

But the tree lives across the nation, from Alaska to Maine, and even abroad. Next year, seedlings from the trees from the 1991 acorns will be sold, grandchildren of the original Wye, ensuring the proud lineage will continue for generations to come.

The state doesn't track the Wye Oak seedlings to see how they've done, but Richard Garrett, the nursery manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, proudly says the Wye is growing in nearly all 50 states and throughout Europe.

People send letters to DNR from all over, and a man from Wisconsin gives monthly updates. "It's amazing the link people have with their tree," Garrett said. "They move out of state, they want to take it with them."

Indeed. Relaying the story of my gift tree to a colleague, he noted there is a Wye Oak growing in his backyard in Howard County. The previous owners of the house had it written into the contract that they can return to the property and collect the acorns.

The tree I bought for my father that Christmas a little more than 13 years ago appears to be growing fast, though Garrett says the 25-foot height is about normal for a White Oak of that age. About 2 feet a year seems right.

And the clinging leaves in the winter? Also normal.

The New Hampshire oak replaced an old oak tree that stood outside my second-story bedroom window as I grew up. In its latter years, the trunk looked diseased, and then entire limbs stopped producing leaves. We were afraid a good storm would send it into the house, which it towered over.

I could look at the branches from my bed, and on cold snowy nights, it looked eerie, but also comforting, like an old friend who was always there. In summer, its large leaves blocked a busy road and shielded the room from noise, while letting just enough sunshine filter through. It seemed to drape the brown, wood-frame house in a soft, inviting blanket.

I had left the house by the time the tree had to come down, and, judging from the pictures, it was quite an undertaking. Large trucks filled our front yard and took the tree down from the top, fearing any other way would mean an end to the house.

Everything looked different when I returned for a visit.

The house seemed exposed. Everything was visible from the road, and that just didn't seem right. It was almost as if the house was embarrassed. It needed privacy. Its occupants needed privacy. It needed to be covered.

A few years later, the state launched an advertising blitz to sell the Wye Oak seedlings, and I bought into it.

And now, the oak is slowly growing tall about where the old tree used to be. It has branches, leaves and a solid trunk, and seems genuinely happy. It will be many more years before it can fully take the place of the tree that came before it, and perhaps some other family will be there to once again enjoy the protection and comfort that the old tree had provided for me, and some other child will fall asleep with branches rustling against the window.

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