Natural Selections

The Tree of (a Secret) Life

by janem on March 23, 2017

story and photos by John Ernst

As it stood in February of 2016.

As it stood in February of 2016.

One summer during college, I worked as a landscaper at Genesee Valley Park. I savored the chance to work outside. Each day I would drive my Gator through the misty sunrise at 5 a.m., surveying the park and ensuring that all was well before hikers and picnickers arrived. And each day, I marveled at the mighty branches lying on either side of the trail. It was a bitch to mow and weed whack, so other employees let the grass grow, giving it a wild and unkempt appearance. A few weeks into my job I learned it was called the “tree of life,” and that it had been struck by lightning, breaking it in half, years before. Feeling an odd sense of connection with the tree, I started taking better care of it.

Years later, my attempt at research on the tree has borne little fruit. Its only online remembrance seem to be a photo gallery on the University of Rochester’s website commemorating the tree’s life, and a memorial page on Facebook. I learned that it was struck by lightning on July 4, 2010 and before it fell, it looked like a pair of hands opening to the sky. I also learned how genuinely Rochesterians loved it. Both the photo gallery and memorial page highlighted that.

For more information I called the Monroe County Parks office, which referred me to Chris Kirchmaier, Supervisor at Highland Park. He told me that he was actually on the forestry crew that cut down the tree the day after it was struck. “I’m not sure that there is a recorded history,” he said, “just a popular tree and a cool structure. Every day I drove by there were four, five, even ten people sitting in it or climbing it.” He told me that he’s only 36, and that his older co-worker Joe Bernal, the tree crew supervisor, might have more answers for me.

“Well, it’s a white oak,” Bernal told me when I asked what he knew about the tree. “It had a perfect crotch, probably eight or ten feet up in the air.” Frederick Law Olmsted designed Genesee Valley Park in the late nineteenth century, and Bernal figured the Tree of Life predated that. “That would make it over 150 years old, and that wouldn’t surprise me,” he said. Earlier in his career, Bernal removed tags from the trees Olmsted had planted, but didn’t remember the Tree of Life having one. He expressed similar fondness as Kirchmaier had for the fallen tree. “Even when it was busted in half, I tried to keep the character in both sides and moved it down to the path.” He said that he’d like to see the tree preserved: “White oak is a wood that lasts,” he said. “But if we really wanted it to last, we’d have to lift it off the ground, get the bark off, and maybe coat it with some preservative.” As Supervisor, Bernal doesn’t have the time to take on a project like that, but hopes somebody does—perhaps a group of volunteers or students from the U of R. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said before signing off.

Tree rings

Tree rings

I decided to revisit the tree and count the rings myself. I had forgotten how huge it was; heaving it up and preserving it would be no minor task. I set to counting the rings on the stub of a lopped branch. Many were so close together that they were indistinguishable, and the cracks didn’t make it any easier to count. I deemed it impossible to record any sound empirical data using this method, but I counted over a hundred rings. Maybe Genesee Valley Park’s ancient oak has no recountable history, but the Tree of Life has earned its nickname.


John Ernst is a passionate writer, hiker, and video gamer born and raised in Rochester. He is currently developing his website,

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by Michelle Sutton

The timing of fall foliage color emergence is a phenophase that citizen scientists can track for Nature’s Notebook.

Gardeners on a Mission

Phenology is a rather clinical-sounding word that describes a passionate field of study. The word comes from the Latin root “pheno,” meaning “to appear” or “to bring to light,” and it refers to the timing of seasonal changes and life cycle events in the natural world. New York Phenology Project ( Founder and Project Manager Kerissa Battle says, “Gardeners are intuitive phenologists—even if they don’t know it! Skilled gardeners closely track seasonal change—their success in the garden depends on it.”

“Phenophases” are distinct life cycle events; for plants, they include such things as fall color emergence, fruiting, budding, flowering, and leafing out. “When gardeners start seeds, plant, harvest, or collect seeds, they are essentially tracking phenophases in order to grow what they want,” Battle says. “Gardeners also tend to keep records year to year of when things happen in their gardens. This is the essence of tracking phenology—paying close attention to seasonal change and keeping records.”

Across the country, more than 15,000 citizen scientists are tracking phenological data for a proscribed set of plants and animals. Many of them are gardeners collecting data from plants in their own gardens; others are going to designated “phenology trails” and other sites in the community. Many of them are entering their data in an elegant national endeavor utilizing Nature’s Notebook, a data-collecting tool of USA National Phenology Network (

In 2015, New York Phenology Project (NYPP) observers contributed more than 10% of the national dataset. The national total number of observations recorded in Nature’s Notebook in 2015 was 1.8 million!

Phenology aficionados track “phenophases,” like bloom time of native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). Photo by Michelle Sutton

Phenology aficionados track “phenophases,” like bloom time of native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). Photo by Michelle Sutton

Time of fruitset, like on this winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), is a phenophase that is tracked by phenologists. Photo by Michelle Sutton

Time of fruitset, like on this winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), is a phenophase that is tracked by phenologists. Photo by Michelle Sutton

The mission of Nature’s Notebook is to encourage close observation of nature, both for the joy of it and the data that results. Theresa Crimmins is assistant director at USA National Phenology Network. “As climate changes, the timing of these life cycle events also changes for many species. However, not all species are exhibiting changes, and the changes that are occurring are not all in the same direction or of the same magnitude.”

Crimmins says that the implications for this are wide-ranging and not yet completely realized, but include mismatches in the timing of open flowers and the arrival of pollinators, spread of invasive species, and changes in species ranges. “Local observations of phenology can provide critical data for scientists studying the effects of changing climate,” she says.

marie-iannotti Gardening Expert Marie Iannotti participates in phenology data collection for Nature’s Notebook and uses phenology in a variety of practical ways in her home garden. Photo courtesy Marie Iannotti


When the Lilac Leaves Unfurl…

One of those data collectors is garden writer, speaker, and photographer Marie Iannotti (, whose name may sound familiar because she is the gardening expert for She has written three books, including The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Northeast.

Iannotti remembers getting phenology-based planting advice from an older gardener who advised her to “plant your potatoes when you spot the first dandelion.” She says, “I started poking around to see if this kind of advice was just folklore or if there was some research behind it. When I found out the research on phenology is ongoing and anyone could participate in tracking, I jumped in, and I started collecting all the tips that had to do with gardening.”

Iannotti takes part in the New York Phenology Project through Nature’s Notebook. She says, “Tracking phenology is a great way for gardeners to get to know the cycles of nature and which things tend to occur at the same point in time. I started by tracking lilacs and know that when the lilac leaves first start to unfurl, I can plant lettuce and carrots, and when the lilac blooms, it’s safe to plant cucumbers and beans. When the forsythia blooms, I plant peas. It’s not an infallible system, but it’s a great tool for planning and for increasing your knowledge of natural phenomena. And since weather can be so variable, it’s more accurate than counting backwards from your last expected frost date.”

According to Iannotti, phenology makes us more aware of not just the changes, but also when something is wrong. For instance, why would we suddenly be seeing so many grasshoppers, or an increase in poison ivy? When should we be on the alert for Japanese beetles? When will cabbage worms be hatching, so we remember to go looking for them? “I’m also tracking my garden nemesis, the groundhog,” she says.


Trails and Sites Near/by You

Kerissa Battle says that one of the great things about the New York Phenology Project (NYPP) is that anyone can create a monitoring site almost anywhere. “Even if you only have space for a container garden outside of your house, or you just tag one red maple on the street in front of your house, or you get permission from the town to mark plants on your favorite local trail—you can join this effort,” she says.

Currently most monitoring sites are situated downstate. Battle would like to see more phenology trails and monitoring sites get established in central and northern New York. “Phenology data has been used mostly to monitor long-term patterns,” she says. “However, if monitoring sites are situated along a gradient—such as north to south or urban to rural—the data collected becomes relevant in the short-term as well.” How does urbanization affect the timing of flowering? Are the same pollinators being seen along an urban-rural gradient? Battle says that an array of monitoring sites that represent all of New York’s diverse ecosystems would allow these types of questions to be addressed.

In addition, central and northern New York are home to some of our State’s finest organizations and academic institutions—many of whom are already well-positioned to set up a site and engage students and the public in citizen science. “Indeed some of the most beloved nature preserves and institutions in New York are already involved—and new monitoring sites pop up every year,” Battle says.

Lime Hollow Nature Center in Cortland recently established a one-mile phenology trail with a focus on five woody plants: red maple (Acer rubrum), sugar maple (A. saccharum), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), and eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). They are also tracking the wonderful herbaceous woodland forb, skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).

The Finger Lakes Land Trust (FLLT), based in Ithaca, set up a phenology trail in Roy H. Park Preserve in Dryden, where they are monitoring red and sugar maple as well as black cherry (Prunus serotina), Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) and Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). They are looking for more volunteers to get involved with this phenology trail. The FLLT has an intimate history with phenology; one of its founders and its first president was Carl Leopold, son of beloved naturalist and author Aldo Leopold, who was an avid phenology data collector.

According to the FLLT website:

While Aldo is well-known for his phenological observations at his farm and shack in Wisconsin from 1935-1948, the whole family participated in observing nature … those observations have proved extremely important … years later, Aldo’s children Carl and Nina used Aldo’s records to publish a study in 1999 showing that temperature-dependent phenological events are occurring earlier. In 2013, a team of researchers used those same records to publish a new study on record-breaking early flowering in 2012. Just think—the observations you contribute today could lead to an important scientific paper down the road!

Citizen scientists around New York State are collecting phenology data and entering it into Nature’s Notebook. Photo by Kerissa Battle

Citizen scientists around New York State are collecting phenology data and entering it into Nature’s Notebook. Photo by Kerissa Battle

A Bustling Play

Battle set up a phenology trail around her property (which includes her garden) and checks her plants nearly every day when she takes her dogs for a walk. “I get my exercise and slow down my mind while I take in everything I am observing,” she says. “It is meditative and enlivening all at the same time. What could be better?”

“Beyond the pure pleasure of phenology monitoring, you can also craft your garden or yard within the larger context of the surrounding ecosystem,” Battle says. She goes on:

You begin to notice the same pollinators on your tomatoes that you are observing on the milkweed in the field. You begin to notice that the red maples in your yard are flowering later than the red maples in town. You start wondering if the heavy fruit set on the mountain laurel near your garden is because your garden is so lush this year that native pollinators decided to nest nearby and are now pollinating everything in sight. What insects are arriving and when; what birds are hanging around your gardens; what else is in bloom near your garden that might be attracting pollinators?

Suddenly you realize that the pollinators are not just servicing your garden—you are actually feeding them. And then they are moving from your garden to the patch of wild bergamot down the road and the fertilized seeds of the wild bergamot are feeding the birds at the end of the summer, and bam! Your intentional watching has placed your garden in the center of a bustling play—with you as both actor and audience.


Battle encourages those who are interested in creating a new NYPP site—which could be in your backyard—to visit


—Michelle Sutton ( is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.


Reprint: Trees as Tribute

by cathym on May 26, 2016

Although flowers often go hand in hand with funerals, trees offer a more lasting tribute. What would you rather have, a spray of roses for a week or an awesome oak for a century?

You’ll see trees in arboreta, parks, and other public spaces dedicated to people who have gone before us. Many animal lovers plant a tree as a memorial to a beloved pet. Trees can also mark an important milestone, such as a graduation, wedding, or birth.

My dad planted trees for each of his seven children. He liked variety, so by the time he got to his youngest, I was stuck with a silver maple. Heck, we lived next door to the Highland Park arboretum, so he wasn’t lacking for inspiration. At least my silver maple grew faster than any of the other trees in our yard — giving me something to brag about.

 Shagbark hickory is a slow grower that rewards the patient with centuries of majestic beauty.

Shagbark hickory is a slow grower that rewards the patient with centuries of majestic beauty.

Catalpa delights with white flowers in late spring and brown seedpodsin winter

Catalpa delights with white flowers in late spring and brown seedpodsin winter

I enjoy growing trees with special significance. The catalpa, above, is also known as cigar tree because of its slender brown seedpods. I found the volunteer seedling while visiting the University of Notre Dame, my dad’s alma mater. Groundskeepers eventually would have yanked out the interloper, so I brought it home with me. There’s something really satisfying about saving a doomed plant.

Then there are the two red oaks I discovered growing on my parents’ gravesite. The seedlings were so small I brought them back on the plane in coffee cups. Today they’re 8 feet tall and awaiting a permanent home. (I just need to find a special spot that won’t be disturbed for, oh, 200 years or so.)

Red oak has beautiful fall color and is a relatively fast grower.

Red oak has beautiful fall color and is a relatively fast grower.

Red oak trees are hardy to Zone 3 so Iowa’s cold winters haven’t been a problem for these Upstate transplants. I do have to cut the roots every other year so they don’t get rootbound. I also mulch the pots with leaves for winter insulation. Both of those extra steps will be unnecessary once the trees are planted for good.

By the way, my Rochester-born oaks march to their own drummer. They leaf out later in spring than their Midwestern relatives and take on fall color at their own pace, too. It makes them seem even more special to me.

There’s one other symbolic tree I’d like to tell you about: a black walnut seedling I found growing through the side of a raised bed. I dedicated the tree to a young man who’s experienced some teen growing pains. I’ve shown him pictures of the tree and pointed out that — just like him — it’s no quitter. I’m probably more interested in the tree’s symbolism than he will ever be. But it’s a convenient prop when he can use some encouragement.

Planted too deeply to sprout conventionally, this black walnut forced its way through a seam.

Planted too deeply to sprout conventionally, this black walnut forced its
way through a seam.

That resourceful seedling has an interesting backstory: I brought a nut back with me from the historic Arbor Day Lodge in Nebraska. The nut lingered in my truck bed for weeks — somehow escaping the attention of foraging squirrels — until I got around to wrapping it in chicken wire and burying it in a raised bed for the winter. I soon forgot about it.

Black walnuts can take two years to germinate, so an entire season of vegetable gardening went on above the sleeping walnut. It wasn’t until the second summer that a wiry stem started squeezing through a seam so tight it would give a microbe reason to pause. Talk about the will to live! How can you let a tree with that sort of moxie die? I couldn’t.


Tenacity alone was reason enough to save the seedling, so it was liberated from its confinement while dormant.


After feisty squirrels removed the top, the black walnut resprouted into a healthy seedling.

So this spring, when the seedling was dormant, I drilled a couple of holes around the stem to free it from its self-imposed prison. Although the stem was flattened, the roots were in good shape. That turned out to be important because soon after I replanted the tree, a squirrel separated said stem from said roots.

Not to worry; nature has provided black walnut seedlings with the means to resprout in such situations. This time I surrounded the sad-looking remnant with spiny chestnut burrs to discourage varmints if they got through the wire-mesh cage. Talk about killing with kindness: The burrs rested against the broken stem, trapping moisture and causing the replacement bud to become moldy and abort. Could this tree ever catch a break?

Yes, indeed. After moving the burrs back and going easy on the water, a brand new shoot arose like a phoenix from the roots. As you can see, it’s quickly developing into a tree—a special tree with a special significance.

Grow Your Own Tribute Tree
Would you like to grow a tree with special meaning? Search for seeds at the old family homestead, the park where you had your first picnic with your spouse, your alma mater, the hospital where your child or grandchild was born — the possibilities are endless. Many trees ripen seeds in fall, but there are some (such as elms, poplars, and soft maples) on a spring schedule. Oak is a great choice for a tribute tree because it symbolizes strength and can live for centuries. It’s also America’s National Tree. To see the author’s tips on sprouting oaks from acorns, visit

Luke Miller is a native Rochesterian now living in Iowa. Visit his public Facebook page featuring tree photography and inspirational quotes at You can also access archives of his philosophical tree blog at