Half-millennium-old Airlie Oak gets TLC, makes babies

The Airlie Oak, core dated to at least 1545, received gentle interventions this year to protect it from lightning and foster its health. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
The Airlie Oak, core dated to at least 1545, received gentle interventions this year to protect it from lightning and foster its health. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– After surviving dozens of hurricanes and somehow going unnoticed by lightning, this spring the Airlie Oak was examined by tree experts and given a handful of interventions. 

“The care of the oak has evolved,” said Janine Powell, Airlie Gardens’ director of donor relations. “Pretty much for the longest time she has been allowed to do her own thing.”

RELATED: One tree or two? Dispute over razed oak highlights need for objective county arborist, tree experts say


Dated to 1545 through core sampling, the oak is listed among the N.C. Forest Service’s N.C. Champion Big Tree Program. It’s served as the backdrop of hundreds, if not thousands of nuptials. (In fact, a young man dropped to a knee in front of the tree in the midst of this Port City Daily interview: She said yes.) 

“These are pieces of history,” Powell said. “Imagine what she’s seen.”

A gentle thud prompted the Airlie Gardens team to seek outside help for the oak’s care. One sunny day last fall –– with no major winds or witnesses in sight –– one of the tree’s low-lying branches relaxed onto the ground. The gardens’ grounds maintenance supervisor, Steven Smith, and his team checked the security camera footage of the day, “and sure enough, no one was around, it just sort of settled,” he said.

The hulking branch was allowed to remain crawling on the earth, but now, it’s reinforced with a custom brace (sort of like a knee replacement). This and other interventions were outlined in a thick report produced last November for Airlie Gardens by Bartlett Tree Experts. 

“They made recommendations on what we could do to make sure that she’s around for generations to come,” Powell said. 

With the recommendations implemented, the marquee oak now has cabling installed, strung among upper branches for support. Two thin wires wind down its trunk from its tallest point, about 70 feet high, to its base where the cable reaches an underground box buried several meters away; this system is designed to channel electricity, diverting damage from the tree itself. 

“You know, we have a single tree out in the middle of a field, so …” Smith said. “The energy comes out and is grounded here versus in the tree,” Powell explained of the ideal lightning strike scenario. 

Thick layers of Spanish moss and resurrection fern, which adorn the tree with an even more enchanting feel, were thinned to alleviate some weight from the sprawling branches. “We’re just lowering the threshold. We like the look of Spanish moss,” Smith said. “When a bride comes, she wants that look.”

Pine straw and ivy were switched out in favor of mulch produced by the county’s composter, giving the roots a better chance of accessing more organic matter. Dead sections of branches were pruned. The perimeter, designed to protect the trees’ root ball, was widened. 

Under its previous private ownership (the county purchased the gardens in ‘99), visitors were invited to sit under the oak on a bench. Now, this space is roped off under county management to protect it (and visitors, in the off-chance a branch were to unexpectedly lay down). 

“By and large we find people are extremely respectful of the trees and understand their importance,” Powell said, adding that rarely do staff encounter anyone who breaches the roped-off threshold. That is, except for one previous frequent visitor: “We had one older man who –– I don’t think he’s alive anymore. He used to come out here and hug her,” she said. “He was Polish and he just felt her energy. We didn’t mess with him.”

“It was really sweet,” Powell continued. “He would hug all the trees. He felt a very spiritual connection to the energies that the trees gave.”

An oak Airlie Gardens staff refers to as “The Darlington” is located in front of the butterfly garden near the parking lot. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

Between the consulting report and recent remediation work, the nonprofit Airlie Gardens has spent nearly $25,000 on the Airlie Oak in a year’s time. A new dedicated fund was recently set aside to collect donations for exactly this type of work on the flagship oak and its “sisters,” as Powell describes them, which are “equally as impressive.” 

Remediation work on the perimeter trees is slated for upcoming projects on a still undetermined timeline. 

In May, the gardens helped coordinate its first-ever sale of saplings propagated from the sister oaks. All 250 sold in 36 hours. 

The sale was the contrivance of entrepreneur Richard Johnson, who had approached the gardens with his vision to collect the oaks’ acorns and cultivate their growth at Penderlea Farms, his live oak-dedicated Burgaw venture.

“I said, ‘Look, I guarantee you’ll make between three and $5,000 a year after five years,” Johnson recounted of his pitch to the gardens. During the first sale this spring, “they raised $5,000,” he said. “So, it didn’t take five years. It took a year.”

Roughly half of the proceeds go to support the gardens’ new oak fund and the rest helps Penderlea break even for its efforts in tending to the saplings. 

Johnson meticulously and painstakingly scopes out eligible acorns across the region for his saplings. Though his team has collected acorns from “the old girl herself,” those babies aren’t quite ready to be sold. When they are, the partnership will host another fundraiser. 

Monday, pre-sale orders opened for the second batch ever sold of propagated Airlie oaks. Powell expects the $40, 3-gallon saplings to sell out quickly. “T​his is a way for people to own a piece of history, and to keep that legacy going in their own yards,” she said.

This round features what the Penderlea team calls the “Salts” –– oaks ground along the water’s edge, with roots touching Bradley Creek. 

“They say that a live oak takes 500 years to grow and 500 years to die,” Johnson said. “They last 1,000 years, which is why it’s such a great tree to plant in your yard. Because you’re making a gift that’s generational.”

Smith’s staff has already planted some of the propagated oaks across the gardens. “They’re slow growers. they’ll look really nice in a couple hundred years,” Smith said.

After losing nearly 300 trees in Florence, 80 in Dorian, and several in Isaias, three hurricanes in a row knocked out many of the gardens’ canopy. 

“We’re thinking now, what will our canopy look like in 20 years?” he said. “We have to continue to collect data, and to monitor these trees, and to pass along a decisive plan for the next generation.”

Though caretakers have ensured the oak’s preservation throughout the years –– namely Sarah Jones, who orchestrated the garden’s design in the early 1900s –– Smith credits both luck and the tree’s natural perseverance for its survival. 

“It really was the testament to the tree itself, how it adjusted to make sure that it could withstand those winds,” Smith said, admiring the oak’s fortitude to hurricane-force gusts while observing its winding base. “So I think most of the credit goes to the tree itself.”

“She survived Hazel,” Powell added. 

Prompted by the pandemic, the gardens’ visitation numbers were up last year, from 115,000 to 125,000, according to Powell. This year visitors are already on track to beat last year’s peak by 10%, she said. To cater to the increased demand, the crew added more public programs, including tree walks and bird hikes. 

“It’s been heartwarming to see, especially during the pandemic, how much people have started to connect: Being outside and being in nature is really good for my body and my soul,” Powell said. 

“And that’s the overall goal here,” Smith added. “We’re not reinventing the wheel here. We’re just trying to preserve it.”

Last fall, one of the Airlie Oak’s branches fell to the ground, unprompted. Fresh foliage still grew from the branch, so a team of tree experts fastened a custom brace to it near the damage to reinforce it. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
The Airlie Oak, core dated to at least 1545, received gentle interventions this year to protect it from lightning and foster its health. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

Send tips and comments to Johanna F. Still at johanna@localdailymedia.com

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