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

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The tree-hugger goes to the zoo

Native trees observed at the Nashville Zoo


When I was at the Nashville (TN) zoo last weekend, I enjoyed seeing the trees almost as much as I enjoyed the animals. The zoo is being developed on Grassmere, a historic 200-acre farm that was south of Nashville until the city grew around it. We visit every two or three years, and every time we go, new exhibits have been opened and more animals added.

How the zoo came to Grassmere


Elise and Margaret Croft were the last private owners of Grassmere. The two elderly sisters lost their main income when their family's sugar plantations in Cuba were nationalized by Castro in 1960. The city of Nashville had surrounded their farm by that time, and the property taxes were too expensive for them to pay. They could have sold the farm to developers, but they felt it would be a desecration of the land and a betrayal of the wild animals who lived there.

In 1964, the Croft sisters reached an agreement with the Children's Museum of Nashville that the Children's Museum would pay the taxes and help with the maintenance of the large old house. The Croft sisters would be able to live on the farm for the rest of their lives, and the museum would inherit the property when they died. They were lovers of nature, so they stipulated that the land could be used only as a nature study center.

Margaret Croft passed away in 1974. Custody of the land was assumed by the Children's Museum of Nashville in 1985, following the death of Elise, and in 1997, the Nashville Zoo took over the property.

Bamboo forest in the native woods


A visit to the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere has always been like a walk in the woods. I don't know when the property was last farmed seriously, but it was a long time ago -- decades, maybe even most of a century. Wherever I look around the zoo, I see woods. Some of the property has been cleared for animal enclosures, facilities for people, etc., but otherwise, it appears that the trees have taken over. Many of the trees are tall, mature specimens, suggesting that they've been growing for quite a while.

There's a new part of the zoo called the "Bamboo Trail", and the name is appropriate. Tall stands of bamboo grow thickly along the paths and the animals who are kept in that area are natives of bamboo forests. It's interesting to experience bamboo as a forest. (Photo at right: looking straight up from a park bench along the Bamboo Trail.)

Still, as a native tree enthusiast, I'm concerned about this "bamboo garden displaying a wide variety of bamboo found around the world," as the Nashville Zoo website describes it.

Bamboo is renown for being invasive; some species are more invasive than others. I hope the landscapers have some foolproof system of barriers to keep it all contained. If not, mature trees in adjoining areas are going to have fierce competition for resources, and the understory won't stand a chance.

My concerns are not unfounded. Look closely at the photo of the Alligator Cove sign and you will see many young bamboo shoots. This sign is in a wooded area that adjoins the Bamboo Trail. I hope they are clipping the invasive shoots like these to give to the animals!

Native trees at Grassmere


Around the main visitor's center, a dozen or more Magnolia grandifolia have been planted. They are young trees, but they're growing nicely. They are 30 to 40 feet tall now. It's late summer, so their fruit is beginning to form. I think Nashville is a little north of the true native range of Southern magnolia, but they can be grown there (and even farther north) successfully.

Elsewhere in the zoo, there are big beautiful hackberries (lots and lots of hackberries), beeches, hickories, cottonwoods, tulip poplars, maples, black walnuts (photo at left), oaks and redcedars. (I am just mentioning some of the most common tall trees I saw.)

I realize that the zoo is going to clear some wooded areas as exhibits are developed. I understand that the animals need winter quarters and roads to bring in food for them. I know that the visitors must have parking lots for their cars.  I even realize that some visitors are going to consider the native trees "run-of-the-mill" compared with the bamboo forest.

However, I hope the zoo developers will conserve, protect, and propagate the beautiful native trees of Grassmere wherever they can. I am positive that the trees were part of what Elise and Margaret Croft hoped to permanently protect on their farm. It would be impossible to live there and not love the trees.

- - - - - - - - - -

One last thing that I want to mention -- and this is probably true of all zoos -- I read in a Nashville Zoo press release that the zoo needs unwanted vegetation such as tree trimmings, especially in the winter.

Species particularly mentioned as desirable are hackberry, elm, redbud, sweetgum, hickory, willow and -- bamboo. The vegetation is given to the animals for "physical and mental stimulation". The zoo calls it "browse."

Because of what the animals can eat and what they like, some tree clippings are are not suitable. The zoo will NOT accept oak, sycamore, tulip poplar, cherry, maple, walnut, locust, or any evergreen tree.

Front lawn of the Grassmere home

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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."

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927)

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