Back in the late 1980s, when the seeds of new development in Charlotte were beginning to take root, a couple of local arborists started to worry that the city’s reputation as the “City of Trees” would decay a little more each time an old tree was cut down and replaced by freshly milled 2-by-4s.
The two began to mark the city’s exceptional trees – those that were very old, and those with unique stories attached – with shiny aluminum plaques, each stamped with a number. it was the birth of Charlotte’s Treasure Tree Program.
They made it to 123 trees in a dozen years. Then the Mecklenburg Forestry Association, the organization that ran the program, died off, taking the Treasure Tree Program with it.
“If we had kept going, today we would probably have 300 in the program,” said Tom Martin, one of the original arborists who started the program before handing it over to the now-defunct Mecklenburg Forestry Association.
Now Martin, a capital improvement project arborist for the city of Charlotte, may see his old program sprout new growth with the help of The Queen’s Crown, a local group that shares the same concepts as the abandoned program.
The Queen’s Crown, run by professional arborists and other tree-loving citizens, is working to find the 123 trees in the program and documenting them before they begin accepting nominations for more.
“We’re collecting stories,” said Patrick Anderson, a member of the group’s board of directors.
The task hasn’t always been easy.
Much of the documentation of the trees in the old program has been scattered. And even though each tree was fixed with an original silver-and-green Treasure Tree Program plaque, placed high out of arm’s reach, the plaques are not always there.
Over the years, some of the trees have met with nature’s wrath, including the ones destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. A few simply died of old age.
And recognition as a treasure tree, by design, doesn’t legally protect them, either.
“We didn’t have any requirements that treasure trees had to be left on site, because we didn’t want to scare people off from getting their trees in the program.”
As a result, property owners have cut down a few.
The list of pitfalls has left the group, at times, on a wild goose chase to find out what’s happened with each one.
“I don’t know how many out there are left,” Martin admitted.
But those that are still around have interesting stories.
There’s the tiny Norway spruce that was planted by the residents of Bolling Street during the holiday season in the 1950s. Every Christmas since then, the neighbors have gathered around the tree to sing carols. What started out as a sickly looking branch, too weak to hold heavy ornaments, is a towering 50-foot tree today.
“It’s a scrappy-looking tree,” said Anderson.
In Plaza Midwood, a coast redwood tree, native to the West, has continued to grow for years. The tree’s planters heaped plenty of volcanic ash into the Carolina soil to help it thrive.
University City hosts the only grouping of trees to earn Grove recognition in the Treasure Tree Program.
Nestled inside the Ribbonwalk Nature Preserve stands a grove of 75 American Beech trees, estimated to be 150 to 200 years old.
“When you’ve got that many at one site, it’s unusual,” Martin said of the persnickety trees. “They are kind of sensitive to anything going on around them – not only if you mess with them, but anything around them – they can start to decline.”
Martin is happy to see the program on the verge of flourishing again.
“Our whole intent in the program was just to bring attention to all these trees that have taken a long time to get to the size that they are,” he said. “That they are special.”