The Big Tree Lives
March 19, 2021
Written By Neal Fandek
The tree dominates the Boone County river bottom, almost 100 feet tall with a canopy even wider and a nearly 24-foot-wide trunk.
This is the U.S. co-champion bur oak, aka the Big Tree. It has survived earthquakes, lightning strikes, floods and droughts in its nearly four centuries. It seems impossible that something so massive and seemingly eternal could be fragile.
Yet it is. The oak was struck by lightning and set afire in October, sending firefighters racing to douse the fire with water then biodegradable foam.
Chuck Doss, battalion chief of the Boone County Fire Protection District, was on fire watch when the call came in. He rushed down to find a limb blown off and smoke pouring out of the trunk.
“I saw a pretty good crack that ran from the branch that used to be three-quarters of the way down, blown off into the field and fire deep inside the hollow center of the tree,” he says. “I was a little worried!” Luckily, the firefighters had the fire under control in two hours.
John Sam Williamson, the property owner and an MFA Oil member, is grateful. The land and oak have been in his family since 1835.
“We just got lucky,” he says. “The crown is intact, only a limb blown off. It could have been split. And the cambium (the living part of the tree, where nutrients travel from the roots) is alive.”
He admits the oak is in decline, accelerated by natural disasters like the Flood of 1993, lightning strikes, vandalism and soil compaction. He has partnered with Dr. Christopher Starbuck, MU associate professor emeritus of plant sciences, and the Boone Electric Cooperative as well as other groups to create a plan to protect the tree with, possibly, lights, cameras, berms, barriers or posts.
But Williamson still wants people to enjoy it.
“Every night, people come here for sunsets,” he says. “A lot of people came down for the total solar eclipse and the great conjunction. People who went to college bring their kids down. To fence it off would be wrong.”
How has it lived so long?
The tree is genetically superior, a disease-resistant white oak, which often live for centuries — “And it’s just plain lucky,” Williamson adds. Location is another factor: The alluvial soil is deep so the tree has constant access to water, but the soil is also well-drained.
Starbuck is optimistic about the tree’s survival because the strike follows the path of a previous strike. “The damage seems to be confined to a small percentage of the massive circumference of the trunk,” he says. “I do not believe the strike will cause it to die any time soon. I am pretty certain it will outlive me.”
Williamson and Starbuck say spring will tell them more about the tree’s health.