March 17, 2020

A Treasure Trove of Trees at Stone Mountain Park

The imposing granite monadnock that towers over the Georgia landscape about 18 miles east of Atlanta is a lot more than a tourist attraction and home to such annual events as the Yellow Daisy Festival and Chili Cook-Offs. Among the many resources of Stone Mountain is one that is little known and priceless: a collection of trees whose variety and stature would rival the collections of any botanical garden! Additionally, many of these plants punctuate and reflect the history, human struggles, and triumphs that define our state. The collection of trees, selected by Naomi Thompson, Education Manager for the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, focuses on these things as well as on their ecological value. The following is sampling of these riches in arboriculture and some information about how you can seek, find, and enjoy these treasures for yourself.

Millions of years in the making. That’s how long it took for the land around the mountain to wash away and reveal a bubble of granite over 500 acres in size. Stone Mountain is the poster child of the granite outcrop – a geological marvel that creates natural communities harboring plants and animals found in few other places on Earth. One of the trees unique to this plant community is the Georgia Oak (Quercus georgiana) – a relatively small Oak tree uniquely adapted to tolerate the shallow, rocky soils of the granite outcrop. Once thought to be of little economic value, the Georgia Oak is finding a place in the reduced planting spaces of the urban landscape.

Symbols of antebellum Georgia. The Magnolia tree (Magnolia grandiflora) and the White Oak tree (Quercus alba) on the grounds of the Davis House are significant plants of the old South. While the Magnolia is not a native plant of the Piedmont, it has for centuries been taken out of its natural range along the coast to be used for its magnificent ornamental beauty. White Oaks are one of the most stately of the oak trees, often used in the years prior to the invention of air conditioning for natural shading and cooling.

Remnants of a devastated species. Prior to 1900, the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) was a dominant species in the Eastern North America. The trees grew to enormous size and were a primary food source for wildlife and an integral natural resource. The trees were driven to near extinction by a fungal disease, chestnut blight. A small remnant grove of blight-resistant Chestnut trees has been identified in the park. Samples have been collected for the genetic preservation of the species and may aid in a hopeful comeback for the American Chestnut.

Dominant tree in the southern swamp. A major effort in the development of Stone Mountain Park in the early 1960’s was the construction of the system of lakes that ring the mountain. As the streams were dammed and the lakes filled their pools, then Director of Horticulture at the Park, Harold Cox, planted Bald Cypress Trees (Taxodium distichum) along the lake’s edge across from the Carillon. This border of trees is reminiscent of something you would more likely observe in the Okefenokee Swamp in southeastern Georgia. The photo shows a portion of this waterside grove of 31 trees in their beautiful fall splendor.

Influence of a Golfing Legend. The two Loblolly Pine trees (Pinus taeda) along the fairway of Hole 12 are what remain of the original three trees planted there under the supervision of Robert Trent Jones Sr. as a part of the development of the Stonemont Golf Course in 1969. Three trees planted in the middle of a fairway was a signature of this world-famous amateur golfer.

Outstanding in its field. A lone Post Oak tree (Quercus stellata) stands as a beautiful sentinel in the center of the Events Field at the Park. Each year the tree is surrounded by vendors and revelers for such annual gatherings as the Yellow Daisy Festival and the Atlanta Chili Cook-Off. Intensive activity such as this often does irreparable harm to a tree, compacting the soil with foot and vehicle traffic, therefore impeding the efficiency of its root system. Park managers realize this potential for damage, and maintain an optimal layer of mulch around the critical root zone of the tree to minimize the compaction. The tree is surprisingly healthy given the degree of activity around it, and it is a beautiful specimen oak tree, allowed to grow uninhibited by other trees as it might be otherwise in a forested situation.

A Champion honoring a British influence. Named for a Native-American Tribe of the lower Mississippi River valley and the color of its trunk, a state co-champion Osage-Orange tree (Maclura pomifera) grows on the former residence grounds of Director of Horticulture Harold Cox, who held that position from 1961-1983. Cox was a graduate of the horticultural program of Kew Gardens, London, England. His children grew up in the shade of that tree. While strictly not native to Georgia, many Osage-Orange trees have been planted throughout the southeast, and it was Cox who recognized the beauty and significance of this particular tree. In 2006, one of Cox’s daughters worked with Park staff and Georgia Forester Dale Higdon to see if the tree might qualify as a State Champion by the Georgia Forestry Commission, and soon after the tree was awarded status as a co-champion in the state.

A beautiful example of our state tree. Fronting the Grist Mill, at the base of a tall granite wall, is a Live Oak tree (Quercus virginiana). The native range of our Georgia state tree is limited to the coastal plain, but many of these trees have been planted elsewhere. Taken out of their native habitat, Live Oaks do not often develop the stately character of their coastal relatives, but this particular tree seems to reflect that character in miniature and it seems to thrive in a rather challenging location in the park.

This is just a sampling of the historic, important, and interesting trees to be found at Stone Mountain Park. In January 2020 Downey Trees began what we hope will be a long-term Tree and Plant Health Care program for these and other important trees at Stone Mountain Park. The human impact on trees is significant, especially in high-use recreation areas such as this. The goal is to mitigate the unintentional damage caused by human interaction with trees – so that we do not “love them to death.” So, if you do visit these trees – tread lightly! For more information about the beautiful trees harbored at Stone Mountain, email them. You can also sign up for their e-newsletter about programs provided for the general public. Stone Mountain is so much more than a big rock – get to know some of its trees the next time you visit!

March 17, 2020