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

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Big Oak Tree State Park

An important place for me to visit


I'll be 58 next month, and I've been thinking about some things I'd like to see and do during my 58th year. I must admit that some of these things could/should have been done long ago -- but better late than never, no?

One of my goals is to visit Big Oak Tree State Park, in extreme southeastern Missouri. I've crossed the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at Cairo, Illinois, dozens of times. However, I've never taken the time to turn off the main road and drive 25 miles south to the park. I'm always in a hurry, on a trip to visit my family.

The park has a very interesting history. This area, already a flood-plains forest, sank up to 50 feet in some places during the great New Madrid Earthquake of 1811. Swamps became swampier. As settlers populated the area, they recognized the agricultural potential of the rich, alleuvial soil, and a century of reclamation began, with the goal of creating as much farmland as possible.

By the 1930s, nearly all of the swamps had been drained and nearly all of the forest had been cleared. One tract in Mississippi County, soon to be logged, contained the largest bur oak tree that has ever been known. Public sentiment was aroused, and a statewide effort began to save the big bur oak and to preserve a remnant of Missouri's great forest of the Mississippi floodplain.

Because of the Great Depression, the state of Missouri did not have enough funds to purchase the acreage where the tree grew. With a combination of state funds, private donations, and the generosity of concerned citizens who gave what they could, enough money was raised to buy 1007 acres of virgin hardwood forest in Mississippi County. This purchase included the tract of land with the giant bur oak tree. In 1938, the Big Oak Tree Park was dedicated.

The bur oak fell in the 1950s. Its death at the advanced age of 396 was attributed to lightning strikes and rot. The tract of land where it grew is now a National Natural Landmark. The National Park Service describes the area as "the only sizable tract of essentially virgin wet-mesic bottomland habitat."

In addition to the champion bur oak, the park has been a home to other state and national champion trees as well.  Missouri State Parks information says that "...trees in the park are unsurpassed in the state for their size, with a canopy averaging 120 feet and with several trees more than 130 feet tall. Five trees qualify as state champions in their species; two others rank as national champions."

The park is attractive to bird-watchers as well as tree-lovers. Around 150 species of birds have been observed there, including some very rare species that have not recently been seen -- and that brings me to a sad ending for this story.

It seems that the park's forest is not in good health. According to an article in American Forests, the old trees are dying and seedlings are not growing. The cane brake is also dying.

Part of the problem is a lake that was built in the park in 1959, destroying the natural swamp that had been there. Drainage systems within the park, designed to prevent flooding of nearby farmland in wet weather, have deprived the ecosystem of the water it needs to sustain itself. Beaver dams were dynamited, also increasing the drainage. Foresters are trying to correct these mistakes now, but it may be too late for the forest to recover.

So I must visit Big Oak Tree State Park sometime soon -- as soon as possible. 

Images in this post are from Wikipedia. The map is from the article "Big Oak Tree State Park" and the photo is from an upload page titled "Big Oak Tree State Park Boardwalk". I highly recommend viewing the full-resolution version (3.96 MB ) of the photo above. Thank you to Knowledgeum, the photographer.

3 comments -- please add yours:

FOLKWAYS NOTEBOOK said...

Hello Genevieve,

What a wonderful place to visit even though it has been damaged. I hope you will write a post about Burr Oak.

Glad to have you as a follower. Thank you.

I am still navigating around google's blogspot to understand all the gadgets one can use. My daughter is giving me a lesson on using Google Reader.--Barbara

Genevieve said...

I can't decide when to go -- fall or spring? I suppose the best time is whenever I can take a day and do it!

Brad Sappenfield said...

Hello, did you ever visit the Big Oak Tree State Park? I'm planning to go there tomorrow hiking with a friend. I was searching the Internet for directions and information and saw your website. I live in Memphis, so we are planning on making a day out of it. I'll be happy to share pictures if you are interested, but hopefully you have visited the park since your last post. I enjoyed reading your information on the park, I'm looking forward to visiting the park!
Thanks,
Brad

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"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.

Photos and text copyright © 2006-2010 by Genevieve L. Netz. All rights reserved. Do not republish without written permission. My e-mail address is gnetz51@gmail.com