Certified arborists will tend to “Big Tree” at Goose Island State Park, providing the aging icon with the best possible care.
Big Tree is an ancient live oak tree, estimated to be over 1,000 years old. A celebrated icon of the Texas State Parks system, the tree has been used by many generations for weddings, picnics, thousands of photographs and meditations. Legends say Big Tree was even a hanging tree, a pirate’s rendezvous and a ceremonial site for the Karankawa Indians.
In 1966, Big Tree was named State Champion Live Oak by the Texas Forest Service. That same year, it was also named National Champion Live Oak and was believed to be the largest live oak tree in the nation. It measured 44 feet tall, with a circumference of 35 feet and a crown that spread 90 feet.
In 2003, however, Big Tree lost its champion title when a larger live oak tree was discovered in Brazoria County. The Brazoria tree, known as the San Bernard Oak, is open to the public in the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge.
Though Big Tree remains one of the largest and most celebrated live oak trees in Texas and the nation, it has been declining in vigor despite focused care by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), professional arborists and local contributors over the past decade. Natural factors, especially the prolonged drought from 2009-2014, may have contributed to the tree’s decline. During the summers of 2009 and 2011, the Lamar Volunteer Fire Department spent 12 days delivering nearly 100,000 gallons of water to Big Tree.
Members of the Texas Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture (ISAT), in cooperation with the Texas A&M Forest Service (TFS) and TPWD, will volunteer their expertise to care for the aging tree. A special work event spearheaded by the ISAT and supported by TFS and TPWD will be conducted this week.
The care team will remove built up soil from around the base of the tree at the root collar, which should be exposed to the air to promote the best health. The team will use an air spade to gently remove soil from around the root collar without disturbing the roots before spreading out the excavated soil in the area around the tree. Some members of the team will climb up into the tree to remove small dead limbs. They will also remove dead wood from the mottes—or grove of trees—surrounding Big Tree. Many of the trees’ roots are connected underground, and Big Tree’s health depends on that of the entire motte.
The care team will repair and replace portions of the lightning arrestor system, which prevents lightning strikes from destroying Big Tree. The group will also continue pruning some of the trees in the surrounding mottes.
Big Tree will be open to visitors on Friday and Saturday, and the park will have an interpreter on-site to answer questions. The area inside the fence and directly under trees being worked on in the mottes will be off limits for safety reasons. Areas will be cordoned off appropriately.
The park is also looking for historic photographs of the tree, especially photos taken before 1970. Anyone who has photos they would like to share should contact the park at 361-729-2858.