Fayette County's biggest catalpa tree is getting a makeover, and students at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts are learning about science and trees in the process.
The face-lift should help ensure the tree's continued survival, and someday might enable it to become Kentucky's state champion catalpa tree, said arborist Dave Leonard, whose crew has been doing the makeover work.
The 83-foot tree, located next to the SCAPA building on the grounds of Lafayette High School, could be 150 years old, according to Leonard. But it essentially stopped growing about 15 years ago, when an old adult education building was expanded to house SCAPA, Leonard said. The tree was left with too little space.
"It has grown minimally since then, so what we want to do is rejuvenate it," Leonard said Friday.
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Workers pruned away old, dead limbs to make the big tree safer and loosened the compacted soil at its base. On Friday, the soil was improved with compost mixed with an organic material called biochar that helps retain moisture and stimulates beneficial fungi.
SCAPA students have been able to watch the work, while hearing lectures from Leonard about catalpa trees and why the school's needs help..
"They're learning a lot," Leonard said. "Most of them didn't know it was a catalpa tree. The name really is of Cherokee origin."
Former urban county council member Sandy Shafer, a longtime advocate for the tree at SCAPA, commissioned the improvement effort.
"We've had most of the middle school students down here getting educated about the tree," Shafer said. "This tree is loved by the students. It would be wonderful if it could become the state champion catalpa tree."
Kentucky's current catalpa champion is in McLean County. It's about 90 feet tall, according to the Kentucky Division of Forestry. Champions are selected through a points system that takes into account height, diameter and other characteristics.
The SCAPA catalpa would have to grow some to become the new champ, said Leonard.
But with luck and continued loving care over the next 30 or 40 years, it could become the Kentucky champion some day, he said.