Celebrated Tree Finally Falls at the Arboretum

If trees could talk, the old Amur cork tree at Harvard's Arnold Arboretum might have made it through another New England winter.

But instead, adoring visitors have smothered the 121-year-old tree to death with love. None of the admirers who frequented the park and climbed onto its inviting limbs knew that they were contributing to its eventual demise.

The tree was ailing, partially because of the years of human weight piled upon its branches. In addition to the normal troubles of old age, this phellodendron amurense suffered from the past summer's 40-day drought.

So when 22 sixth grade girls from Boston's Winsor School clambered onto the tree's low branches for their annual Arboretum photograph on Thursday, a huge horizontal limb cracked and the trunk split to the ground.

The students escaped injury, quickly climbing down from the tree.

The phellodendron amurense did not fare as well. Arboretum workers removed three quarters of the tree on Friday because they felt it posed a hazard to visitors.

They left the cracked trunk and one long, low branch which sweeps the ground to an expanse of about 20 feet.

The tree's grandeur has been reduced to the form of a bench that will remain indefinitely, according to Assistant Director for Living Collections Peter Del Tredici.

"Everybody's heart broke.... Who wants to be on the cork tree when it cracks?" said Karen Funkenstei science teacher at Winsor who was with the students on their annual field trip to the Arboretum.

Del Tedici was more philosophical about the loss.

"It died as it lived.... Eventually, biology is going to assert itself over emotionality," he said.

In the past, Arboretum officials had difficulty keeping visitors off the tree, which graces Meadow Road, Del Tredici said.

Approximately 200,000 people visited the park each year, attaching themselves to the tree's branches and suffocating its roots.

Arboretum pruners had also been removing dead branches from the tree over the past 10 years, increasing its frailty, he said.

The tree had come to be personified as a gentle, inviting grandparent figure in the park.