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On the trail of the great trees

  • Published Saturday, March 27, 2010, at 12:05 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, March 27, 2010, at 1:42 a.m.

It's hard to love any plant more than you can love a big old tree, and Doug Grimm of Hiawatha has made a volunteer job of searching out Kansas' biggest specimens — the state champions — and even propagating some of them for future generations.

"Either they're lucky trees or they have special genetics," explains Grimm, owner of Grimm's Gardens in Hiawatha, in the northeastern corner of Kansas. He's in Wichita today to talk about the "Trees of Tomorrow" at the annual Tree Festival at the Extension Center.

"It's what I hope I leave people: If they just pay attention as they drive down the road they may see the next state champion. Some of these trees I found totally by accident."

Grimm's landscaping work takes him even into Nebraska and Iowa, where he also searches out champion trees.

"I probably measure 20 of them to find one champion," says Grimm, a certified arborist. "A lot of times they're close (to being champions), and they're really enjoyable trees to see. I love the stories — about Grandma who knew the tree when she was a little girl."

The beautiful old trees in the hands of a propagator can share their wealth for years to come.

For example, Grimm can be thanked for introducing to the market a sugar maple that produces reliably beautiful fall color in Kansas. He tells his own story of hearing a talk several years by a Tennessee tree man who remarked that a sugar maple could not be grown reliably in the Midwest.

Grimm corrected the speaker by saying, "My hometown is full of these trees."

He decided then to survey Hiawatha's residents for their favorite sugar maple, and got 12 nominations. Grimm then narrowed them down to trees that scorched the least in summer, and one that eventually became known as Oregon Trail was successfully propagated by wholesale grower J. Frank Schmidt & Son in Oregon.

Schmidt had grown the tree for two years when Grimm began to wonder why the company had not released it into the trade. It's as good as any other sugar maple on the market, Grimm argued. But that's just it, the Schmidt people responded. It needs to be not just as good but better.

Then the severe ice storm of 2007 struck Hiawatha, and Grimm went out in the aftermath to check certain trees, including sugar maples.

"This one tree never had a single broken branch, and other trees were devastated," Grimm said. Schmidt took that as evidence that the Oregon Trail is superior to the average sugar maple.

The Oregon Trail's name commemorates the champion tree of the same variety that marks the grave of five children who died crossing the Oregon Trail in Lecompton.

"It has merit for everyone to plant," Grimm says. Burgundy Belle is another northeast-Kansas sugar maple that is available for sale.

Schmidt has about four other trees that Grimm has discovered and researched that it is propagating to be sure that they will come back true to the parent before putting them on the market.

'Just enough success'

While eastern Kansas has the largest variety of trees in the state, specimens excel in areas you might not expect. The champion cottonwood is in Studley, in northwestern Kansas. It's in a low area surrounded by other trees that have protected it through its many years.

The cottonwood was planted in 1908 close to the Cottonwood Ranch, a national historic site.

"It's not only the state champion but the national champion cottonwood — by far the largest one in the nation," Grimm says. It was planted as part of the land grant program, and that's how its planting came to be documented, Grimm said.

"It's phenomenal," he says, calling it Kansas' version of a giant California sequoia. "You're just in awe. It's almost 36 feet in circumference."

When he decided to volunteer for the state champion tree program about 10 years ago, Grimm wondered: Why aren't we propagating the trees that grow fastest and strongest? "Those are the trees we need more of," he thought.

Having received an online degree in plant propagation, Grimm has put his skills to work on some of the champions.

"I take these cuttings off these trees in January the old-fashioned way with hardwood cuttings. ... We put them in a 45-degree room and on a heat mat and try to warm the roots up before the leaves leaf out.

"I've had more failures than success. I've had just enough success to keep me going."

'Excited about all of them'

Grimm has propagated an incredible 30 kinds of Osage orange trees.

"I'm real partial — I love these Osage oranges because they have no disease, they're fast-growing when they're young. People think of them as hedgerow trees that are gnarly, but I've cultivated one in my backyard, and it's a beautiful shade tree."

You can get a male Osage orange that has no hedge apples, but Grimm also has selected two female thornless varieties that go to either extreme of hedge apples: One produces them 7 inches wide (Grimm calls this one Bowling Balls), and another puts on 1 1/2-inch hedge apples (it's called BeBe).

"I can get excited about all of them. One I lost was the first champion tree I found, a concolor fir. That's rare in this part of country. And lightning blew it all to pieces six months later. That's what happens to some of these old champions. They don't live forever. They have a lifetime too."

Grimm will have some potted and some bare-root trees, mostly his rare types, for sale at the festival today, along with the Oregon Trail maple. His talk will be at 9:30 a.m.

For our part of the prairie, Grimm recommends planting a variety of trees because you never know when the next disease is going to come through and wipe out a particular kind. He also preaches planting the right tree in the right place. (Jason Griffin, director of the John C. Pair Horticulture Center in Haysville, will speak on that topic today at 8:30 a.m. at the Tree Fest.) That means getting to the know the microclimate that exists where you plan to plant a tree, Grimm says.

"Our No. 1 restriction is not heat or sun or winter, it's hot dry wind. You have to protect from that." The solution is planting trees that can't take the south or west sides of the house on the north and east sides, or buffering the trees some other way, such as with a grove of trees.

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com. If you go tree festival What: Information about growing trees; plant vendors; tree tours, sponsored by the Extension Service and master gardeners Where: Extension Education Center, 21st and Ridge Road When: 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. today How much: Free. Pancakes and sausage will be served by the master gardeners for $4.

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