Historical context is one my favorite attributes of trees. But, how old are trees, really? Specifically, how old are trees in my neck of the woods here in central Texas? I’m pretty sure there’s no one alive today who has seen the oldest tree in central Texas; with no one alive to ask, that leaves us looking for clues.
Texas A&M publishes a book, called Living Witness, that tells historical stories of old trees in Texas. A map in this book shows historical trees clustered in central Texas. I’m not sure if that means there are more old trees in central Texas or if there is more history in central Texas than other parts of the state. Another thing I’m not sure about is how certain we are about particular trees. I’m talking about the Treaty Oak here. The Living Witness specifically indicates the treaty oak is over 500 years old. That age is based on stories we have been told about what has taken place under the tree. However, the treaty oak is the only remaining tree from the council oaks, a grove of trees that history is based on. Are we really sure that the treaty oak we know today was one of the original stems in the council oaks or did it start growing later and nobody really noticed. My point here isn’t to start a conspiracy theory, but to point out that we don’t know for sure. The only way we really have to check the age of a tree is to count it’s rings.
There is a researcher out on the University of Arkansas, Dr. Malcolm Cleveland, who has done extensive research counting rings on very old trees across the country. He did some work in central Texas; you can read his research report published in the Texas Water Journal here. The oldest trees he found in central Texas were some bald cypress trees at Krause Springs that dated back to 1423. The photo above was taken at Krause Springs. I visited the campgrounds recently to see for myself. There are parts of the site that make you feel like you are in the pacific northwest. Some of the trees are absolutely huge. 1423 ages those trees to 591 years, as of this writing. The oldest oak trees in the area are post oaks near Yegua creek (north east Austin area). They date back to 1648 making them 366 years old, almost half the age of the Krause Springs bald cypress trees.
The purpose of Dr. Cleveland’s research is to recreate historical weather records. Our written records only go back to the late 1800’s. Most water planners use the drought of 1950 – 1956 as a worst case scenario. Dr. Cleveland’s research indicates there have been considerable more severe droughts that last more than a decade.