Sunday, May 25, 2014

Photo Essay: Big Trees (and more) in Milwaukee County Parks

In Memoriam: Richard Barloga, 1941-2014

Not long ago I traveled to California where I visited a couple of Redwood groves. They are deservedly popular (read my earlier post.) But did you know that we have very tall trees right here in Milwaukee County? You can see them without traveling thousands of miles; some of them are but a very short walk in the park.
Eastern cottonwood (Seminary Woods)
 Dan Buckler, Outings Chair of the local Sierra Club group (Great Waters Group), gave a tour Saturday of big trees in several Milwaukee County Parks. He made it clear to the group of about 20 of us that he doesn’t define “big” casually. The Wisconsin DNR keeps a database of exceptionally large trees all over the state. These include “Champion Trees,” which are the single largest example of any particular species that exists in the state, one of which we saw Saturday here in Milwaukee County.

Most of the trees we visited, while not officially Champions, are extremely large in one or more of the dimensions used as calibrations. These may be the diameter and/or circumference of the trunk, the height of the tree, or the width of the crown. In any case they are impressive.

Our tour took us to three County Parks and Seminary Woods, a privately owned but publicly accessible reserve.

We began our journey in Kern Park, along the Milwaukee River where we saw this enormous London planetree (Platanus x acerifolia). (Dan provided the identifications in English and Latin!)

Kern Park is home to several large, beautiful planetrees.

Among other species, some of them native to Wisconsin.

I wandered away from the group and discovered the path leading down to the riverside. I left it for another day, but it was well enough used by others.

Our second stop was South Shore Park, where this venerable European copper beech (Fagus sylvatica) stands right next to the parking lot. I would have been satisfied with its gnarly magnificence. But there was a larger one not far away.

Right on the edge of the park, as you can see. In fact, this one is so close to the road and--significantly--overhead power lines that, as Dan explained, the utility maintenance crews have to been especially careful when pruning, not to damage the tree.

This one is in fact a Champion Tree--the largest European copper beech in Wisconsin--and it has a plaque as proof.

It's coppery red leaves were just budding out.

Someone had the foresight--and curiosity--to look down as well as up. Fortunately. At our feet we found several baby copper beeches.

There were certainly other lovely species in this park too, resplendently decked out in with new foliage.

At Whitnall Park we found this burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa) right next to Whitnall Park drive and not far from the golf course. 

Dan explained that even these great trees must occasionally be pruned. Sometimes this is done to protect power lines, as at South Shore Park. Sometimes it is to protect the tree itself. 

Seminary Woods is more like a wild forest than an urban park. Unlike the other places on our tour, there was no lawn separating the trees. Instead what we discovered was a wealth of wildflowers. The trilliums were especially spectacular. 

In fact I found a variety of trillium, called "nodding" for obvious reasons, that I'd never seen before.

We were here to see two especially tall trees. This American beech (Fagus grandifolia) was far too tall to see at one glance--or get in a single picture!

Dan most likely told the group how tall this was, but I had wandered off again and missed it.

That's how I happened upon this lovely patch of skunk cabbage in the hollow.

When I found my way back to the group again they were standing around the most gigantic Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoids) I'd ever laid eyes on. Again I missed the actual height.

There is a well maintained cemetery in the middle of Seminary Woods. But that's another story.

I want to thank Dan Buckler, our intrepid tour leader. Dan is a forester who just moved to the Milwaukee area to work with the DNR in the Parks and Recreation Bureau.

In Dan’s own words, “I have been in love with the woods my entire life, and I have studied trees formally in school and informally in my spare time. Like many people I believe in the sentiment that "The groves were God's first temples" (that is, a forest can be a place of awe and reverence). That is what usually draws people into the woods in the first place. But then you start asking questions about how why a tree is shaped this way or that, how old can this tree become, what's the evolutionary advantage of this bark, and suddenly you discover the whole scientific world around you. All of these things make me want to keep going into the woods, learning more, and hopefully be able to share that knowledge with others.”

In closing, I want to dedicate this post to Richard Barloga, who was an indefatigable advocate for preservation in the Milwaukee region and beyond. I attended a memorial service for Richard after the tour. I was late getting there but I figured Richard would not only understand but applaud my appreciation for the places, the trees and the wildflowers I visited in his honor. In particular, I thought of Richard as I knelt before the Jack-in-the-Pulpit to photograph it. It seemed a fitting prayer.

I went back to Seminary Woods on Sunday because there hadn’t been time during our Saturday tour to check up on the owls I knew to be nesting there. I saw the mother owl perched high in a cottonwood overlooking the dead tree that held the nest. She flew off as I approached the dead tree, no doubt an attempt to draw me away from it.

I did have to back away from the tree to be able to see the two owlets peering intently at me from their perch inside the broken top of it, about 25-30 feet above the ground. New life in the forest. Richard would approve.

(To read Richard's obituary click here.)


  1. Eddee, excellent journal of our tree adventure on Saturday. Yes, Dan is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic forester. GO TREES! ..... and, for some reason, your photos look so much better than mine! janet (not anonymous, but I don't think I had any other choice here)

  2. Thank you for the wonderful tree and nature hike Dan and to you Eddee, for the great pictures and words. Glad you went back and found an owl and nest. I can't wait to go back to the"Woods" with my camera. I will keep my eyes open for owls.

  3. Trees are wonderful personifications of place and character. I have always had trees as friends- at my home, on the way to school, on the way to college. We started on our educational non profit when we discovered our children knew about the depletion of the rainforest but could not name the trees in their own yard.
    Thank you for sharing some of the remarkable ones in our own city.

  4. This information is unique i like your article due to it's uniqueness thanks for sharing this with us also check Top 10 Biggest Trees in the World you will like this for sure

  5. Sadly the largest copper beech tree died a year ago. The whole Bay View neighborhood loved that tree...

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