Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Waverly (Waverley) Oaks

Some of the biggest white oaks ever known in America



The Waverly (or Waverley) Oaks were a group of very large and very old white oaks that grew near Boston, in a corner where the towns of Watertown, Belmont and Waltham meet. I use the past tense because the last of these big old oaks has apparently died. A monument has been erected in their memory.

About 8 years ago, I first read some articles about the Waverley Oaks in turn-of-the-century periodicals in the Library of Congress (LOC) American Memory website. Two of the most extensive and informative articles were:

The poet, James Russell Lowell, was particularly fond of Beaver Brook and its small waterfall near the ancient oaks. He spoke of the grove of oaks as the "Beaver Brook Oaks," and somehow wrote a poem about Beaver Brook without even mentioning them.

Recently, I've enjoyed reading more about the Waverley Oaks in some of the old books that Google has digitized. In the pieces I've read, there's little agreement about how many trees there were. An 1881 account of the trees, included in a Harpers Magazine article about James Russell Lowell said there were only seven or eight oaks at Beaver Brook and one elm which was dying.

A year later, The Massachusetts Horticultural Society specifically states that the Harpers Magazine article is wrong -- there were twelve or fourteen oaks, not just seven or eight.

I feel sure that Professor C.S. Sargent of Garden and Forest did an accurate count. He was a scientist. He reported in his 1890 article about the Waverly Oaks, "There are in this group, twenty-three large oaks and one large elm growing on an area of two or three acres. The Oaks are all White Oaks with the exception of a single Swamp White Oak."

Similarly, there is much disagreement over the age of the trees with estimates from 100 years to 1000 years and a reported tree-ring count of over 600 on a stump. I don't know who to believe, but I'm inclined again to take the word of Professor Sargent, who wrote that the trees were at most 500 years old.

You can read reports of the enormous size of the trees at the various links I've included here.

Professor Sargent probably wouldn't have liked this sentimental description of the Waverley Oaks, but it's within the age parameters that he granted them.

The magnificent Waverly oaks were mature trees when the keel of the Mayflower touched the gleaming sands of Plymouth harbor.

The south wind played the same soothing melodies through their branches then as now, though the Indian, whose moccasins noiselessly trod the sward at their feet, has vanished from the face of the earth and the humble Pilgrim from Leyden has inspired and created the greatest nation of the civilized world.

The old trees saw the Red man and the Englishman play their parts and are still sturdy—as well they need be— while they listen to the polyglot tongues that now babble around them.

Seasons come and go, leaves ripen and fall, buds unfold into leaf and blossom, but the tree grows on and on and recks not that the white headed old man who thoughtfully reposes in its shade is the same person who sported beneath its limbs in childhood's merry hours.

Source: An 1893 speech by Nathan Mortimer Hawkes

I read in 2001 that the State of Massachusetts was collecting acorns to propagate the last tree of the Waverly Oaks. I can't locate that information on the internet anymore, but I hope the project is still being pursued.

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4 comments -- please add yours:

Anonymous said...

I believe there is still one Waverley Oak living. There is a sign next to it calling it "the last surviving Waverley Oak." Although a large part of it is gone, it still had leaves on it. I just saw it today.

Lynn Noel said...

Some of its larger branches came down in the recent storms, but in the fall, the DCR was keeping the understory clear of Japanese knotweed so it's more visible from the road and the parking lot. There are many descendants of the original oaks in the Beaver Brook Reservation; we adore the three in our backyard, which backs onto the Mill Ponds.

Anonymous said...

I saw this tree today and I didn't even know what it was until I read the sign but I was impressed by it. No leaves yet because its too early but the branches are covered in moss and its huge. It looked like it had an eye because of the way a cut off branch was facing. If a tree could have a soul this one does. Danielle Rosales Massachusetts

Jim Luckett said...

The one remaining very old oak at the site is at the corner of Wilson and Waverley Oaks Rds, near Trapelo Rd. There is a sign (not a monument) in the parking lot. It's about 4 1/2 feet in diameter which makes it about 250 years old. The largest of the now gone trees was said to be 17 feet in girth, which means almost 6 feet in diameter.
http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/1993-53-4-waverly-oaks-1890.pdf

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"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

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Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

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