CHICAGO — If determining Chicago's oldest tree is anyone's guess, at least Scott Carlini has an educated one.
Carlini, who's involved with a number of nature organizations — including Openlands, Morton Arboretum, Chicago Region Trees Initiative — believes a bur oak in Chicago's oldest continuously used cemetery could be the city's most ancient tree.
Carlini said the oak inside Union Ridge Cemetery in Norwood Park, based on its trunk size, could be in the range of 325-375 years old. The cemetery is Chicago's oldest, most continually used one, according to the Norwood Park Historical Society. The first burial at the cemetery, which now overlooks the Kennedy Expressway from the south, took place in 1841.
The historical society said The Care of Trees, a tree service company that performs maintenance work at the cemetery, might have more information, but Care of Trees officials said their arborist didn't have records of possible ages for that tree.
Other guesses for Chicago's oldest tree have come from Gary Ossewaarde, the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference parks chair, who wrote in 2009 of a bur oak tree located in Midway Plaisance Park that could be 250-plus years old near University of Chicago's Billings Hospital. That's possible considering the oaks in nearby Washington Park predate the earliest designs for the park by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1870, and bur oaks can live up to 400 years.
Ossewaarde said via email that he got the information second-hand and that there may have been an oak even older in Lincoln Park. There is also a similarly sized oak tree in the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools courtyard, but the school's director of communications and an alumna, Catherine Braendel, said no one there could estimate its age.
Officials from the Forest Preserves District of Cook County, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Field Museum and Chicago Park District said they don't keep track of the ages of specific trees within Chicago city limits.
Most of Chicago's forests and prairies were wiped out in the 1800s. By 1900, most of the land in and around the city had been turned into farmland and residences, with small green strips and patches of forest remaining.
The Morton Arboretum's manager of plant records, Ed Hedborn, said there appears to be a small grove of mature bur oaks in the oldest part of Union Ridge Cemetery, which is located in what he said was the middle of a broad stretch of prairie before it had been converted for other uses. He guessed all of the trees inside the cemetery are closer to 200 years old but can't be sure.
Of course, it's hard to back up guesses since it's not possible to know the exact age of a tree without taking a coring to count its rings. Drilling holes into trees is not typically done unless it's involved in a specific research effort. Standing trees' ages can be estimated if others with similar size fall or are taken down.
The Chicago Region Trees Initiative next year plans to launch a "TreeMendous" tree competition with the goal of helping to identify some of the largest and oldest trees in the Chicago region. The competition will include the findings of a tree census of the urban and community forest of the seven-county Chicago region.
"This effort may get to the answer of what is Chicago's oldest tree," said Lydia Scott, community trees program manager at Morton Arboretum. "Until then I think it is purely speculative as to what and where that tree might be."
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