Group's arboreal ardor helps ensure
decades-old catalpa won't fall prey to development
Sunday, July 6, 2003
By DAVID FLICK / The Dallas Morning News
John Ward's feelings toward a tree named Grace surprise even him.
"I don't consider myself a tree hugger. I have never in my life felt that way about a plant," he said. But "after you stand under it, you get an emotional response, a sense of peace and a feeling of what I would call great optimism."
Mr. Ward recently led a group of investors in buying a small house on a double lot in the Little Forest Hills neighborhood near White Rock Lake. His goal was to save a century-old Southern catalpa tree that grows in the lot's back yard.
The seller, Nancy Nelson, said she too had bought the house because she liked the tree. Ms. Nelson named it Grace because she heard that her own name meant "graceful one."
At first, John Ward was only mildly interested in buying the property where Grace stands, but "after you stand under it, you get ... a sense of peace."
"Mike, this friend of mine is very funny – he's from New York – and he says, 'We don't want someone to fall from Grace, they might break their leg,' " she said.
Ms. Nelson draped a rope swing from one of the branches and built a tree house, where she and her children would hold parties. On one warm night, she slept there.
She also came to believe that Grace might be the largest of its species in the state. She contacted the Texas Forest Service a few years ago and was told the largest catalpa was in East Texas.
Two years ago, she asked Steve Houser, a consulting arborist who is also a volunteer with the state forest service, to come to her house to measure. Mr. Houser discovered that Ms. Nelson was right.
At 45 feet tall and with a 254-inch trunk, Grace is now listed on the service's registry of champion trees, a list of the largest example of each species in the state.
Mr. Houser said the designation might, if anything, understate the case. For reasons that are unclear, the top third of the tree is missing. Grace at one time appears to have been at least 20 feet taller.
The upper branches may have been lost to wind or to an ice storm, or a previous owner might have had the tree trimmed, he said.
He doesn't know whether the tree was planted or grew there naturally. A creek once adjoined the property and could have carried seeds to the spot, he said. On the other hand, he said, farmers used to cultivate catalpas to attract worms for fishing bait.
The proximity of White Rock Lake might lend credence to that theory, although it is possible the catalpa pre-dates the lake itself, which was built as a reservoir in 1911.
"It's a great tree," Mr. Houser said. "I wish it was larger. I wish it had its top. It could have been a national champion if it had its top."
Despite the loss, the tree is healthy, he said. But when Ms. Nelson put the house up for sale, Donna Sutton, a neighbor, saw another threat.
Ms. Sutton, who is also a real estate agent, said she has seen developers bulldoze trees to shoehorn more than one house on a piece of property.
She contacted Mr. Ward, a former real estate investor, who lives in Kessler Park.
"I wanted an investor who would save this tree, and I knew John had a big heart," she said.
Mr. Ward said that initially he was only mildly interested. But he went to a garage sale at the residence, in part to see the tree for himself.
He said that at the sale he so fell in love with the tree that he bought a 400-pound decorative pineapple that he didn't need.
"I knew I couldn't carry it away, but it gave me an excuse to return," he said. "I had visiting rights to the tree."
He persuaded other investors to join him in bidding on the property. The bid, for an undisclosed price, was accepted, and the deal closed June 27.
Mr. Ward intends to subdivide the property but is planning to impose a severe list of deed restrictions designed to preserve the catalpa tree.
For one thing, the new property line will run through the trunk of the tree, so that neither owner will have final say over it, he said.
An agreement will also require that a certified arborist approve any decisions that might affect Grace's health, he said
In the meantime, Grace will be put through some arboreal pampering.
Mr. Ward said the ivy on her trunk will be killed and, in time, gently peeled away. The grass underneath her branches, which competes for nutrients, will be removed; the soil will be aerated, and the tree will be given special plant food.
The new house to be built on the property will have pier-and-beam construction (which is better for the underlying soil than a house built on a slab), utility connections will be bored deeply enough that they will not affect the root system, and all sidewalks will be gravel rather than concrete, Mr. Ward said.
He is doing all this, he said, because "it's the right thing to do."
"She was here long before I was born, and she'll be here long after I'm dead.
"I'm temporary. Grace is permanent."
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