The Arkansas Famous and Historic Tree Program

The Arkansas Famous and Historic Tree Program (AFHTP) draws attention to the numerous noteworthy trees found in the state by recognizing their historical significance.

“People love the stories about the trees because it connects them to history, culture, life and nature,” says Lynn Warren, AFHTP Program Coordinator. “All of us have childhood memories with trees and love to hear the stories about those silent witnesses to history. It is fascinating to think about what an old tree has seen in its lifetime, which in some cases spans generations.”

Many of the 44 trees and tree communities represented within the program are also cited in the Arkansas Champion Tree Program (an Arkansas Forestry Commission project maintaining a list of the state’s largest trees). “On the list of registered trees, it will mention if it is a state champion,” says Warren. “You’d be surprised at the stories.”

Trees listed under the AFHTP include the Apollo 14 Mission Moon Pines. These tall monoliths were propagated from seeds taken on the Apollo 14 Mission in 1971 by astronaut Stuart Roosa. Prior to his involvement with NASA, Roosa was a U.S. Forest Service smokejumper with a strong interest in forestry. The shortleaf loblolly pine is the state tree of Arkansas and four were given to Arkansas from the mission. Just two stand today, one at the 1836 Hempstead County Courthouse at Historic Washington State Park and one at the Sebastian County Courthouse in Fort Smith.

In Little Rock, as part of the Central High School tree community (dating back to the development of the school), nine trees along the front campus area were identified and submitted as the “Little Rock Nine Witness Trees” present during the 1957 Civil Rights Crisis. Seedlings from these trees were propagated by the Forestry Commission and distributed during the 50th year commemoration of the event. In North Little Rock, the Laman Live Oak is at this time the only official city tree in the state and even owns its own land. Former North Little Rock Mayor William “Casey” Laman was instrumental in saving the oak from two different developments over the years. The oak was the site of a first kiss with his girlfriend, who later became his wife of 63 years.

One of the best known historic trees in the state is the Council Oak in Dardanelle, which is believed to be the site of a treaty between the Cherokee Nation and the territory of Arkansas in 1823. This oak is a State Champion Tree and believed to be over 200 years old (c.1804). In 2001, it was designated by Betty Bumpers (wife of former Governor and Senator Dale Bumpers) as an “Arkansas Millennium Landmark Tree” when each state was asked to nominate one state tree for the new millennium as part of the America the Beautiful program.

Warren says when the historic tree program was created in April 1997, the first two trees inducted were two state champion trees that were also national champions. This included the National Champion Loblolly Pine. A forester preserved this large pine on Potlatch property, outside of Warren from being harvested since it was so large. Unfortunately, it was struck by lightning in 2003 and it went down. The other was a National Champion Persimmon, which dwarfs the house next to it, located in Dardanelle, just down the street from the Council Oak.

The oldest trees registered in the program are very large old growth bald cypress along the Little Maumelle River on the southern border of Pinnacle Mountain State Park. “You can see some of them if you walk the Kingfisher Trail in the Day-Use Area, near the playground,” says Warren. “Several trees were cored and dated by the University of Arkansas’s Tree Ring Lab and date back to 1456 – around the time of the discovery of America, 1492. The cypress trees were left next to the shoreline when the fields were cleared for crops, prior to becoming a state park. These trees are considered significant old growth trees, (over 600 years old) for our state. However, there are older ones that were discovered by the Tree Ring Lab and the oldest is over 1,000 years old in the Delta region that I hope to nominate in the future.”

Historic Washington State Park is home to two well-known magnolias, one of which was champion until 1996. It was planted by General Grandison Royston, one of the city fathers of Washington, and it remains a picturesque landmark for the town and the region. “The current champion magnolia is located in Texarkana and was scheduled to be cut down for a new apartment development until a group of concerned citizens banded together and contacted the Arkansas Forestry Commission,” Warren shares. “They measured it and discovered it was now the largest magnolia in the state. The media covered it and the developer reconsidered. They did finish the development but changed the plans to preserve the tree — a win-win for everyone.”

One of the most misunderstood aspects of the program, Warren says, is assuming that if you register a historic tree with the program, you lose your rights to the tree and can’t develop your land in the future — or that the owner will not provide permission to do so.

Warren says a registered tree will gain popularity in some cases and like with the state champion magnolia, may affect future development so that the tree is preserved. But the owner is still allowed to cut down their tree if they so wish. Anyone can nominate a tree but must provide the owner’s information and consent. For trees on private property, the tree’s address is withheld to protect the owner’s privacy. “We have tried to make the form as simple and short as possible,” says Warren. “The Nomination Review Committee is made up of people with professional backgrounds in history, horticulture, arboriculture and landscape architecture and are more than willing to help assist with a nomination.”

The Arkansas Famous and Historic Tree Program was developed in 1996 through a cooperative effort between Arkansas State Parks, Arkansas Forestry Commission, Department of Arkansas Heritage (represented by both the Natural Heritage Commission and the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program) and the Arkansas Federation of Garden Clubs. For more information or to learn about the nomination criteria for the program, visit forestry.arkansas.gov or arhistorictrees.org.

Zoie Clift, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism