More than 100 years before French explorers Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette wrote about seeing Iowa for the first time in 1673, a white Oak started growing on the banks of the Des Moines River in south-central Iowa.
That tree, estimated at 442 years old when it was felled by wind in 2004 or 2005, was believed to have been the oldest white oak tree on record in the state, said Jeff Goerndt, Iowa Department of Natural Resources state forester. The Science Center of Iowa donated a cross-section of the tree to the DNR to put on display in the Wallace Building in Des Moines.
“With a tree that old, you can learn a lot of stories,” Goerndt said.
For example, there are stains from railroad spikes pounded into the tree 50 to 100 years ago, perhaps as a stand for hunting. The slice of tree also shows wider and narrower rings, denoting years of plentiful water and drought, he said.
The tree grew on a riverbank near the Warren County town of Hartford. It was such a remote area, the tree had been downed for several years before it was discovered. Extremely old trees often are misshapen or far-flung, which would have made them less desirable for logging, Goerndt said.
Borings taken of the tree in 1983 indicated it was one of the state’s oldest. The DNR slice happens to show where this boring was taken all the way to the pith, or center, of the tree.
White oaks grow slowly, adding a dense layer of hardwood each year. This makes the trees durable, but not necessarily the most impressive at a glance. The cross section of the 442-year-old white Oak is about three feet in diameter, Goerndt said.
“Of the hardwood trees in Iowa, the white oak is one of the longest-lived trees,” he said. There’s a stand of 400-plus-year-old white Oaks in Pammel Park in Madison County. Iowa also has some 500-year-old red Cedars on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River in northeast Iowa, Goerndt said.
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Mark Rouw, Science Center animal specialist, harvested the slices of the 442-year-old white Oak in 2012 with the DNR, Army Corps of Engineers and private landowners. Preserving the wood took several more years, with Rouw sanding the surfaces and applying wood-stabilizer daily before letting it dry, according to a Science Center article.
The slabs are banded with metal to keep them from falling apart.
“It was a big project,” Rouw said. The Science Center is displaying its cross section in a new experience platform called “What on Earth?”
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