A North Carolina oak tree dating back 800 years is under siege. Can it be saved?

The Indian Trail Tree in Southport is believed by some to be 800 year old.
The Indian Trail Tree in Southport is believed by some to be 800 year old.

One of North Carolina’s quirkiest legends - about a tree with two trunks reputed to be 800 years old - is under threat in the coastal town of Southport.

The ancient gnarled oak known as the Indian Trail Tree recently showed all the signs of a bug infestation, including several bore holes in its two trunks and trails of sawdust. Experts aren't sure exactly what pest is attacking the tree, since they've yet to see one of the bugs.

However, to say this is alarming to the people of Southport is putting it mildly.

This is a tree once featured in Ripley’s Believe it or Not….a tree that has its own state historical mark... a tree surrounded by its own city park.

“It’s a beloved landmark,” says Scott Len, co-chair of Southport’s forestry committee. “People who grew up here know the tree and know the legend and that legend has taken on a life of its own over time.”

In other words, no one can actually prove the tree sprouted in the year 1218, when Genghis Khan was among the world's most feared leaders. It may be more like 250 years old, but experts realize there is little to be gained from debunking a myth that is part of the city’s walking tours.

The legend, according to the historical marker, is that Native Americans used the tree to mark to their fishing grounds in what was once the Elizabeth River. “The tree took root a second time, thus developing the unusual formation,” says the marker.

Why the tree took root a second time is a mystery, but a 1998 article in the Wilmington Star says Native Americans often bent saplings and tied them to the ground as markers.

Local newspaper photos taken in the 1930s showed the two trunks formed a arc that men could crawl through. However, that hole is scarcely big enough for a cat to squeeze through now.

It's definitely not the oldest tree in the state. North Carolina's oldest tree is believed to be a bald cypress along the Black River that dates to 364 AD, according to UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute.

The Indian Trail Tree a baby by comparison.

The discovery of bore holes in its trunk last month came as part of a stepped up effort in Southport to protect the tree. An arborist was visiting the spot to add fertilizer last month, when he spotted damage that was not there during his visit in February, Len says.

A pesticide has now been applied to the trunk and Len says the saw dust that alarmed everyone is no longer showing up. Fertilizer has also being added to the trunk (by direct injection) and to the roots via the soil. The extra attention is being paid for with grant money devoted to protecting the large oaks that tourists have come to expect along Southport’s streets, said Len.

He believes a crisis was averted, but says there’s no doubt the tree is “entering hospice.”

“The thing is, this is a tree and at some point, there’s not going to be anything further we can do for it,” Len says. “I just hope I’m not on the committee when that day comes. I hope it's not in my life time."

For now though, he says "all people need to know is we’re doing everything we can to ensure it remains part of Southport's history as long as possible.”

Mark Price: 704-358-5245, @markprice_obs