MARIETTA — A centuries-old tree with cultural significance is at the center of a new residential development in Marietta, but no plans exist to cut it down, according to city officials.

The huge white oak near the corner of St Annes Road and Kennesaw Avenue, just over a mile from Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, has likely been there since the 1700s, based on the International Society of Arboriculture’s formula for estimating white oak age.

It is on a residential section that is currently being subdivided into four lots, but building plans show an area around the tree has been marked off from development.

“The good news is that they submitted a plan for the new house to go on the lot and they include a tree save area around the historic tree,” Marietta City Manager Bill Bruton told the MDJ on Friday, adding that the lot in question is being developed by Traton Homes, a local firm.

The tree is thought to be one of only a few remaining trees in the area that Cherokee Indians trained as saplings to point to landmarks. This was done by bending a branch in a certain direction, so it would forever guide the path to a place of importance, such as a walking trail, water source or healing plant.

These trees, often called Indian trail or pointing trees, aren’t around like they used to be, historians and arborists say.

The Marietta specimen has long been a well-known attraction, not just for its link to the area’s past, but also because of its unique aesthetic and size.

As such, the tree even featured on a metro Atlanta publication’s list of things to see in the region.

For Jim Morris and Jim Gross of the Marietta Tree Keepers organization, the Indian trail tree on St Annes Road is a special relic with cultural and local importance, and is significant in its own right given its age and size.

“This is a primary, classic example of an Indian trail tree,” Morris said Friday while gazing at the specimen. “People for a long time have recognized what it is.”

In 2010 the Nicholas Wallingford chapter of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America placed a plaque at the foot of the tree, explaining its history and original purpose.

“The Native Americans bent saplings to grow into living “signposts” for traveling Indians,” the plaque states. “These living markers pointed the way to a water source, a suitable river crossing or a main trail.”

Gross and Morris, the president and secretary respectively of Marietta Tree Keepers, were relieved to hear about the developer’s plan to save the tree, rather than remove it.

“It’s great they recognize what it is and have taken measures to protect it,” Gross said. “But without some sort of formal protection it’s at the mercy of the property owner or developer. Things change, developers move on, people forget and sometimes progress is detrimental to history.”

Gross said it would be a shame if the tree succumbed to development at any stage in the future.

“This will never be repeated,” he said of the tree’s purposeful styling. “You can always cast another statue or build another monument, but this can never be replicated.”

Morris cited the tree in a 2006 report he wrote about the tension in Marietta between historic preservation and being part of the modern movement in metro Atlanta.

“It is difficult to find much of a record of Indian presence in Marietta,” Morris said in his report, describing the tree in detail.

“The nose of the limb is obviously pointing at something and it did not get this way by accident,” Morris’ report states. “This nose now points toward the rail line paralleling Kennesaw Avenue. What is now an easy grade for the railroad may once have been a desirable path for the Indians.”

Joe Burgess, an urban and community forester for the Georgia Forestry Commission who lives in Cobb, says Marietta’s Indian trail tree is “pretty rare” and probably has roots extending about 100 feet in every direction.

“I’m betting it’s at least 200 years old,” Burgess told the MDJ on Friday.

He said the biggest threat to the tree, as far as development goes, is damage to the tree’s “critical root zone,” which typically happens when sidewalks, sewer and water lines, driveways and other infrastructure is put in place.

A general rule of thumb in this regard is not to damage more than a third of the tree’s roots, Burgess said, adding it’s sometimes years before the damage is realized.

“This is a white oak, and white oaks, when they receive damage to the root system, that damage doesn’t show up for five or six years because they’re growing so slowly,” he said. “A poplar or a maple will show that kind of damage in a year, but a white oak does not. A lot of folks will impact the root system and say two years down the road “see, we didn’t do any damage,” when really, the damage is yet to show up.”

In addition to this issue, roots in Marietta are typically only 1½ or 2 feet deep, not 4 or 5 feet deep like most people think, Burgess said, and that makes it hard to develop without significant disturbance.

“There are ways to install water lines and power lines and infrastructure by boring under a tree’s root system and try to help maintain that tree’s root system, but that is not cheap,” he said. “There are also things you can do with home foundations that will lessen the impact on the tree root system, but if the home has a basement that’s not an opportunity.”

A white oak left alone in a rural area could live to about 400 years old, Burgess said. A white oak in an urban environment that’s already about 200 years old, like the one in Marietta, might live another 20 or 50 years, he said.

“Is the tree going to be here 100 years from now? Probably not,” he said.

The Indian trail tree’s critical root zone, based on its size, is probably about 75 feet in every direction from the tree’s trunk, Burgess said.

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