Just under the U.S. 820 bridge carrying passengers over Lake Worth in west Fort Worth, a massive tree sits near the waterfront.
The live oak – the largest on the lake – is named after George T. Reynolds, a pioneer and cattle baron who once owned the land that is now Arrow S Park.
The tree is one of more than 50 to earn “heritage” status from the city, which created its heritage tree program in 2009.
Fort Worth has a long history with urban forestry and protecting trees, said Hannah Johnson, a natural scientist supervisor for Fort Worth’s parks and recreation department. The city declared it illegal to hitch a horse to a tree in 1873 and hired its first arborist in the 1920s.
“There’s a longstanding tradition of caring for trees,” Johnson said, gesturing toward the Lake Worth Indian Marker, another heritage tree located at the park. “It’s great that we have a municipal tree ordinance, but we also want to celebrate these old magnificent trees that are spread throughout Fort Worth.”
Each year, the city accepts nominations from residents who know about a tree with historical or unusual significance in their communities. While there are other heritage tree programs at the state level, Fort Worth’s initiative is unique in recognizing trees on the city level, Johnson said.
A panel of community members with “different tree knowledge” reviews the nominees and decides which trees should be recognized with heritage status, Johnson said. The selected trees are announced at a city Arbor Day celebration in November.
What does it take for a tree to earn the coveted heritage status? The Texas Historic Tree Coalition, which runs its own statewide program, defines a heritage tree as having “deep significance to a community.” That definition can vary depending on the area – a new tree recently planted in honor of someone or a group of people could be considered for heritage status despite its young age, for instance.
In Fort Worth, a tree must either possess an unusual size, age or species significant to the region; be located on a historic site and contribute to the history of an area; or serve as a well-known landmark and contribute to the community in a significant way. Trees can be located on public or private property, Johnson said.
“Some are old and have a lot of history behind them, some might be very large in stature and are holding a Texas state title,” she said. “To me, it’s really fun to share that with the public. I think sometimes you can forget how old some of these trees are and we don’t realize before we take them down how much difference they can make in a community.”
Earning heritage status doesn’t give a tree any more “protection” from being cut down to make way for development or a roadway project. However, once a tree is designated as a heritage tree, Fort Worth’s forestry department does make an effort to provide extra care to the tree through trimming branches and checking on its health, Johnson said.
Many of the trees don’t have markers, in part because it can attract vandalism, Johnson said. In 2020, the trunk of a locally famous heritage tree, known as the “Homeless Christmas Tree,” and a sapling were mysteriously removed from their location near Gateway Park on Interstate 30.
The culprit also stole a memorial bench installed by the family of Carla Christian, a woman who cared for the tree until her death in 2006.
“It appears to have been done very deliberately, very professionally, and totally cleaned up,” Leslie Gordon, who wrote a book inspired by the tree, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time. “It doesn’t sound like vandalism, which is heart-breaking.”
Still, visitors can find the general locations of the heritage trees and locate specific trees by comparing their surroundings to images on the city’s website, Johnson said. The revamped heritage tree map was part of Johnson’s effort to publicize the program more this year after Fort Worth didn’t receive new nominations during the 2021 nomination period.
The effort has paid off so far, with four people submitting nominations in 2022. The application will remain open until at least the end of August, Johnson said.
She encourages nominators to share as much as they can about the tree so that the selection committee has all the information they need to declare it a heritage tree. The application requests photographs of the trees and information such as tree height and circumference.
Residents are also welcome to come back with a nominee if they discover new information that could qualify it for heritage status, she said.
For people who might not understand the value of recognizing a tree’s importance to a community, Johnson pointed to the economic benefits of preserving trees as well as the aesthetic value to a neighborhood or park.
To Johnson, though, a heritage tree does more than provide shade on a hot day or look nice in a photograph. The tree’s very survival shows how resilient nature is despite Fort Worth’s rapid development and changing surroundings.
“It all started from an acorn that dropped somewhere,” she said. “Imagine all the different weather events, all of the changes this area has seen. This bridge wasn’t here. This was all a ranch we are standing on. It’s the fact that things are ever changing, and yet trees are still growing and standing in the places where change is taking place.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.