Rinne Allen still remembers the day her grandmother took her into downtown Athens to watch a bunch of adults dedicate a grove of seedlings near the corner of Dougherty and Thomas streets.
She was 9 and didn’t really understand what was going on then, but as she has grown so has her appreciation of the connection she has to the trees on that corner. Each one was planted in 1982 in honor of a child.
“I can remember the dedication ceremony and my grandmother – my mother’s mother – had the tree in my honor,” Allen said. “We went to the ceremony, and there was a little label on the tree with my name on it.
“And now 30 years later, when I drive by those trees I still have that memory. It kind of flashes through my head. That particular grandmother is no longer living, so seeing it kind of reminds me of being with her.”
The Tree Babies, as that downtown grove is called, comprise some of the 1,000 trees that the Athens-Clarke County’s Landscape Management Division has recognized as Landmark Trees – trees that have a story or are so rare, large or old that they deserve honoring.
See more photos of landmark trees throughout Athens: http://athenscms.com/oa/zenphoto/042210-landmark-trees/
Each year new trees are added to the registry and each year the Athens-Clarke Tree Council, a board of citizens and government officials created in 2000 to promote tree preservation, gives tree maintenance grants to help owners keep the trees alive and thriving. The council has inducted four new landmark trees onto the registry so far in 2010, the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, but always is looking for new additions.
People can nominate any tree – but to qualify, a tree has to stand out in some way. For instance, it could be the largest of its species in the state or in the county.
There’s a flowering dogwood at the corner of Prince Avenue and Talmadge Streets that has been documented to be the largest in the state, measuring 40 feet tall and 26 inches around its trunk.
Athens Regional Medical Center owns the dogwood, and the hospital logo is based on a photo of the prized tree, according to documents provided by the tree council.
Size isn’t the only thing that makes a tree qualify as a landmark. The community’s connection to the tree also can make a tree worthy of special recognition.
Back in the 1960s, Mary Anne Hodgson and her husband found out that a giant white oak that had been on their property on Old Jefferson Road for more 50 years was the largest in Georgia. A few years later, they received a letter from the state Department of Natural Resources letting them know that their tree had been eclipsed by an even larger specimen.
“They just tore that letter up,” said Peter Hodgson, Mary Anne’s son.
It didn’t matter to them. The Hodgsons loved their tree and so did many of their neighbors.
“The tree has been a favorite of a lot of people for a long time,” said Mary Anne Hodgson. “We put a bench out there and people would stop there to eat lunch or to meet up so they could carpool into town. It’s been known as a community landmark long before the Landmark Tree program.”
Other trees that made the landmark list have been included because they were planted to commemorate certain events.
Athens’ Moon Tree, a loblolly pine growing in the parking lot of the Athens-Clarke County Planning Department, was planted in 1976 after it was propagated from a seed that orbited the moon with the Apollo 14 astronauts in 1971.
Astronaut Stuart Roosa, who started his career as U.S. Forest Service firefighter, carried hundreds of seeds with him into orbit. The seeds orbited the moon 34 times before the Apollo crew returned them to Earth – where they were planted all over the United States and in several other countries, according to NASA’s moon trees website.
Other trees don’t have such historic backgrounds but qualify for their rarity.
One of the tree council’s tree maintenance grants this year went to protect a swamp chestnut oak on Clover Street.
Swamp chestnut oaks usually grow best on wet bottomlands, but this one has thrived in higher country in the middle of Normaltown, said Andrew Saunders, Athens’ community forester who advises the tree council.
At more than 100 feet tall and more than 100 years old, the swamp chestnut oak is not only rare but one of the largest trees in the county, Saunders said.
By Merritt Melancon