Featured Article - September/October 2017

Tennessee State Parks’ Arboreta Showcase Tennessee’s Tree Diversity

By John Froeschauer


An unusual multi-branched American Hornbeam at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. Photo by John Froeschauer.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “arboretum” from the Latin “arbor,” meaning “tree,” as “a place where trees and plants are grown in order to be studied or seen by the public.” Similar definitions read: “a place where many kinds of trees and shrubs are grown for exhibition or study.”

The Tennessee Urban Forestry Council is a non-profit organization that coordinates and oversees activities of those with interests in urban forestry. Among their related advocacy and educational programs is Arboretum Recognition, and their website presently lists 93 registered arboreta statewide. Following TUFC guidelines, since 2000, arboreta have been established in sites ranging from elementary schools and college campuses to public parks, botanical gardens and corporate properties.

Rules set forth in the application process call for four levels, each determined by the number of trees either present or planted that are identified and labelled, with recertification done every five years: Level 1 – 30-plus trees; Level 2 – 60-plus; Level 3, 90-plus; Level 4 – 120-plus trees. The Town of Jonesborough Adrinna Woods Level 2 Arboretum, containing many botanical elements, was mentioned in the May/June 2017 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist. However, over half are registered as Level 1, three of which are within Tennessee State Parks.

These arboreta are literally located from one corner of the state to the other, from the Tri-Cities in upper East Tennessee to the heart of the Central Basin to the Mississippi River Valley just south of downtown Memphis. Tennessee State Parks, many containing extensive wooded areas, could themselves be considered unofficial Level 3 or 4 arboreta, each harboring many unique forest components, but ease of accessibility and viewing and existing trail configuration can limit the number of trees which can be included. In their requisite signage and/or educational materials, each park site interprets diverse natural and cultural aspects of chosen species in three very different geographical situations.

Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park

Located in the city of Elizabethton in the state’s northeast corner, this Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park is steeped in early Tennessee history, and was the site of several notable events. The largest private real estate transaction in North America, the Transylvania Purchase, took place here in 1775 when a group of Euro-American settlers known as the Watauga Association negotiated the purchase of land from the Cherokee Nation, thus expanding settlement of lands west of the Appalachian Mountains.

In the tumultuous wake of this event, Fort Watauga was built, and is now reconstructed. Here also was the muster ground for the Overmountain Men, a pioneer militia who in September 1780 successfully fought the British Army in the Battle of King’s Mountain, a decisive victory that hastened the end of the Revolutionary War.

A linear path of history may be followed here, but the arboretum, which labeled 36 trees, mainly occupies a formerly mowed field between the park entrance roads. The project was initiated and the process begun by the Friends of Sycamore Shoals. Retired East Tennessee Forester, Martin Miller, provided valuable technical assistance. Additional support for this effort was made possible by numerous individuals and municipal entities including the Carter County Park and Recreation Board, Carter County Commission and the Elizabethton-Carter County Chamber of Commerce.

Species include those sought after and utilized by both Native Americans and white settlers alike. Statewide staples such as Northern Red and White Oak, Shagbark Hickory and Flowering Dogwood provided mast for game animals and humans, and many of the tools displayed in the museum are fashioned from these and other featured trees.

Other East Tennessee specialties at Sycamore Shoals include Carolina Silverbell, Fraser Fir and Canadian Hemlock.

At the arboretum’s opening in March of 2013, Park Manager Jennifer Bauer stated: “People of all cultures have lived on these lands and knew the importance of our forests. From the forests came food, medicine, water and shelter. The significant history of Sycamore Shoals is tied closely to the land and how people conserved and used their resources for survival.” Visitors who amble around the arboretum will make connections between centuries of settlement and history and the trees featured here that made it possible.

Long Hunter State Park

Long Hunter State Park is situated at the eastern edge of Nashville within the low-lying Inner Central Basin physiographic region, the foundation of the state’s limestone heartland. This is typical karst terrain, characterized by thin soils, little surface water and abundant caves, many consisting of small sinkholes. Flat, open expanses of gravelly limestone called cedar glades harbor numerous rare plants such as the Tennessee Coneflower and Leafy Prairie Clover. The park is named for the long hunters, pioneers who hunted, explored and began settling the western frontier in the mid to late 18th century. One such long hunter was Uriah Stone, for whom Stones River is named, on which the extensive Corps of Engineers J. Percy Priest Lake is impounded, forming much of the park boundary.

As with Sycamore Shoals, the arboretum began as a Friends of Long Hunter project in 2008, named for member and volunteer naturalist Jason Allen, who identified and chose many of the 46 included species, and completed the required paperwork. Upon TUFC acceptance, the Friends of Long Hunter supplied labels and stencils for the trees and trail surface as well as manpower and maintenance assistance.

The logical choice for siting was along the popular Couchville Lake Trail, a woodsy two-mile level paved walkway encircling a 110-acre lake caused by isolated sinkholes filling beside the Priest Lake basin. Included are such common hardwoods as Black and Shumard Oak, Bitternut Hickory and Sassafras. Cedar glades undergoing natural succession touch upon the trail where large Eastern Red Cedars, a glade pioneer species, are now part of the understory. An accompanying brochure contains interesting facts and other information such as old and modern medicinal and industrial uses as well as benefits to animals.

The Long Hunter arboretum has achieved desired results, as Allen observed: “It’s turned out to be an educational tool for both individuals and families just out for a stroll. For example, I heard from a mother whose daughter’s teacher was impressed that she knew so much about trees. The mother told the teacher that she learned all of it at the Couchville Lake Arboretum. Hearing stories like that makes all the work worthwhile.”

The arboretum also features lakeside inhabitants Black Willow and Eastern Cottonwood and middle–southeast Tennessee understory specialty Southern Buckthorn (Sideroxylon lycioides).

T.O. Fuller State Park/Chucalissa

In the extreme southwest corner of the state, perched atop the silty loess hill bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River valley is the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, a part of T.O. Fuller State Park administered by the University of Memphis. Chucalissa, a Choctaw Indian word meaning “abandoned house,” is a temple mound and village complex occupied by prehistoric Mississippian Indians from circa 1000–1500 AD. Abandoned and reoccupied during that time, at its peak in the 14th century, Chucalissa supported a population of 800 to 1,000 people. Archaeological investigations and field schools conducted since the 1930s have produced artifacts and information interpreted in exhibits and an archaeology laboratory where visitors may examine artifacts dating back about 10,000 years, nearly the entire breadth of regional human occupation.

The arboretum was registered in 2006 through the efforts of the Southwind Garden Club, with GaNelle Roberts Ballard serving as Chucalissa Arboretum Chair. Colleen Dudak is the present chair, but Ballard remains involved with this and several other local arboretum projects. Tennessee Department of Agriculture Urban Forester Shawn Posey recently conducted the five-year certification inspection.

The half-mile loop trail containing 32 species links to the adjacent six-mile T.O. Fuller Discovery Trail. Two forest canopy overlooks on the trail allow for excellent birding during spring and fall migration in the heart of the Mississippi Flyway. A brochure describes the variety of common hardwoods labeled, such as American and Slippery Elm, Sassafras and Tulip Poplar. Common West Tennessee resident, Red Buckeye, is a regional feature, and the more uncommon Kentucky Coffeetree is a welcome new addition to the list.

“The arboretum provides an important addition to the educational opportunities offered by the C.H. Nash Museum,” says Manager Melissa Buchner. “Each year, thousands of visitors tour the arboretum to learn about native trees and how they were used in prehistory. We are very fortunate to have this community partnership with the Southwind Garden Club.”

While these particular sites are far apart, each provides a good starting point from which visitors can explore the vast arboreal resources offered by other registered arboreta and those found in just about all Tennessee State Parks. Many state parks contain trails and areas with labeled trees and available interpretive information, and Tennessee State Parks is a partner in The Nature Conservancy’s “If Trees Could Sing” program.

For further information, visit the following websites:

Tennessee Urban Forestry Council - www.tufc.com
The Tennessee Urban Forestry Council supports two chapters:
West Tennessee – www.wtc.tufc.org
Middle Tennessee – www.treesnashville.org

Tennessee State Parkswww.tnstateparks.com
Tennessee State Parks Arboretum trail brochures are available on request at each site:
www.tnstateparks.com/t-o-fuller
www.tnstateparks.com/long-hunter
www.stateparks.com/sycamore-shoals

The Nature Conservancy of Tennessee - www.nature.org/iftreescouldsing
The Nature Conservancy of Tennessee’s “If Trees Could Sing” project features videos from 27 musicians speaking about their favorite tree. Trees in a number of state and city parks have been outfitted with signs, each with a QR code that, when scanned with a smart phone, takes park visitors to a video of the artist talking about that specific tree.

(Middle Tennessee Regional Interpretive Specialist for Tennessee State Parks, John Froeschauer, lives in Nashville.)

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