Babe and Annette are two magnificent bur oaks that likely were already standing on what is now Oakland Farm when the first Virginia settlers arrived in Bourbon County in the 1780s.
Now, for $15, you can plant one of these trees’ offspring in your yard. You won’t live long enough to see it fully grown, but it probably will outlive you several times over.
These small, potted trees are the beginning of an ambitious plan by Oakland Farm owner Doug Witt and his niece, Laura Greenfield. They are partnering with other Central Kentucky farms and landmark properties to propagate and sell the offspring of native trees with special botanical or historical significance.
“It’s a way of telling Kentucky history by preserving these plants,” Greenfield said.
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Central Kentucky’s Inner Bluegrass region is one of only two places in America — the other is around Nashville, Tenn. — where centuries-old bur and chinkapin oaks, blue ash and kingnut hickory trees grew naturally in open pastures. But they are rapidly disappearing from the landscape, and not reproducing well, because of development and modern farming practices.
Witt and Greenfield are the fifth and sixth generations of their family to tend 700-acre Oakland Farm since 1876. They have dozens of ancient trees — but few young ones.
“It seems like we lose one of these big, old trees every year,” Witt said. “Except for a few in the fencerows, there are almost no little trees growing here other than the ones we’ve planted.”
While most of their farm’s income comes from cattle, the family several years ago started raising and selling native Kentucky trees in pots for $10 or $20. Some of their best sellers have been those with edible fruit: Paw Paw, American Hazelnut and blight-resistant American Chestnut.
They sell trees at the Paris Bourbon County Farmer’s Market and in Lexington at Good Foods Co-op and the monthly Bluegrass Farmers Market at Beaumont Center. Customers also can come to Oakland Farm by appointment. (More info: Oaklandfarmtrees.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, (859) 361-8474.)
For several years, Witt and Greenfield have had bur oaks they grew from seedlings bought from the state nursery, which raises them from acorns gathered mostly in Lexington Cemetery and the University of Kentucky campus. Witt and Greenfield tried to grow some from their own farm, with mixed success.
This is the first year they have had any of those ready for sale. These trees were grown from acorns gathered from Babe and Annette, two of the farm’s most beautiful bur oaks. The trees were named for a pair of mules who worked the farm when Witt’s mother was a girl.
“I think this is terrific, because Oakland Farm has some amazing trees,” said Tom Kimmerer, a forest scientist and author of the 2015 book “Venerable Trees” about this region’s woodland forest landscape. “That you can have a tree in your yard that’s the progeny of a tree you’ve always admired is a great idea.”
Kimmerer has started a non-profit group, Venerable Trees, to educate the public and help tree owners preserve them. (He is leading a public bus tour of Lexington’s outstanding trees on Oct. 14. More info: Venerabletrees.org.)
After tree sales stop this winter, Greenfield said she plans to seek other landmark trees whose owners would be willing to partner with them.
Greenfield and Witt also are working to reproduce trees from great specimens on their farm, including chinkapin oaks and blue ash, which are resistant to the ash borer beetle that is decimating Kentucky’s white and green ash trees.
These heritage species can be hard to propagate, and each has its own challenges. For instance, keeping squirrels from digging up and eating huge bur oak acorns is a major challenge, no matter now strong a wood-and-wire container they put around them so they can sprout.
“Preserving the native landscapes we have is as important as planting new native landscapes,” Greenfield said. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”