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Sean Kirst: For Buffalo's 'oldest' tree, windstorm was a breeze

The concern was expressed in one understated sentence. Last Saturday night, just before the arrival of gusts that almost reached hurricane force in Buffalo, a neighbor made this point to Nate Byrnes, in a kind of oh-so-casual way:

Maybe that is not where you want to leave your car.

Nate and his wife, Katherine, had parked in front of their Franklin Street home, but the neighbor was more worried about what they parked beneath. Their front door is a few steps away from what is often called the oldest tree in Buffalo, an ancient sycamore with a vast and mossy trunk whose outstretched limbs, in the winter, have a look almost of marble and bone.

The tree endures, a leviathan tilted toward the street, only a short walk from downtown. The trunk is so expansive that Byrnes has watched small knots of people – sometimes, he guesses, as many as four or five – as they wrap the tree in an awestruck embrace, simply to see how many human beings it takes to stretch around it, fingertip-to-fingertip.

A few days ago, Byrnes considered his neighbor's statement. He agreed it seemed prudent to move the car, even if he had already seen the old tree withstand devastating weather. While the sycamore suffered some limb damage, it made it through the October snowstorm of 2006, when heavy snow combined with soggy autumn leaves to fell or destroy some 57,000 trees in greater Buffalo.

“I wasn’t terribly worried,” Byrnes said, but he and Katie kept an eye on the tree amid the gusts. At one point, when the storm was really howling, Byrnes witnessed something he had never seen before: The wind was pushing so hard against the limbs that Byrnes believes he saw the trunk itself budge, just a fraction.

This sycamore tree on Franklin Street near Edward is over 300 years old and considered to be the oldest tree in Buffalo. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

In the end, the sycamore – for reassuring reasons – emerged as unscathed symbol of a storm that could have been much worse. The tree lost only a few minor limbs. That was good news to Nate and Katherine, who bought their old Franklin Street home 14 years ago, after they walked past and saw it was for sale.

They somehow knew – in the mystical way these things happen – it was the place for them. For the couple, another part of the allure was serving as guardians for that civic landmark of a sycamore, with its 59-year-old plaque declaring it might be the city's oldest tree.

“The tree’s great,” Byrnes said. “We love having it.”

Ross Hassinger, the city forester, shared in the same general relief after last weekend, though he spoke of many instances of tree loss and damage. “My thoughts are that we fared well with this storm, given the wind speeds that did occur,” he said.

Hassinger, who was on the job as those gusts blew, said his office received reports of 150 locations where trees or major limbs fell to the ground. “It did not do as much damage to the canopy as we feared,” said Hassinger, caretaker of an urban forest not yet fully recovered from the freak onslaught of 2006.

This week's wind was enough to cause problems for many homeowners, including a Wyoming Avenue woman whose silver maple toppled down upon a home in which she has lived for decades. The woman, who chose not to give her name, recalled how the tree offered shade to her children as they were growing up.

Sunday, she was in her living room as the winds accelerated, as some instinct told her to call her dog and go to the back of the house. Ten minutes later, she was safely removed from any danger when the falling tree crashed into the façade and the edge of the roof.

“It was a friend, like family," the woman said of the maple. She described it as "humongous," and the way she voiced the word – her emphasis on size and strength – offered a reflection of her awe at the wind.

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The storm was not enough to slow down Re-Tree, the program co-founded by Paul Maurer to replace tens of thousands of trees lost in 2006. Maurer said the target is still a ceremonial planting of Re-Tree's 30,000th tree on April 27, and he believes the relatively contained damage from the wind is tied to strategic changes in the trees of Buffalo.

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"We've learned over the years that you need to have diversity," Maurer said, noting that silver maples – such as the one on Wyoming Avenue – are far more susceptible to extremes of weather. The goal, he said, is to put "the right kind of tree in the right spot."

As for the oldest tree in the city, it seems to be doing just fine, regardless of whether you believe that status truly belongs to the tree on Franklin Street or to other worthy contenders.

Almost 40 years ago, Ed Drabek – a longtime city forester who died this month, at 84 – said tests showed a white oak within the Delaware Park golf course was probably older than the sycamore. That belief is shared by Daniel Cadzow, an archaeologist and researcher who said the Meadows area of Delaware is home to some of the city’s oldest trees.

While the storm tore into a handful of nearby ash and maples, the oaks endured.

"We lost a few great trees in the park," Cadzow wrote in a Facebook message, "but we retained the greatest."

Oldest or not, there was universal gratitude once the Franklin Street sycamore shrugged off yet another blast. “That tree is amazing, phenomenal,” said Rob Gorden, director of urban forestry for Arborjet, a Massachusetts-based technology and plant care company that includes the sycamore in its “iconic tree” program.

Arborjet helps care for revered trees in communities across the nation. For the past couple of years, Gorden said, with approval from Buffalo's Common Council, tree care specialists have injected the sycamore with treatments intended to "stimulate the tree’s natural defenses” and to combat athracnose, a fungal disease threatening its well-being.

“I wasn’t terribly worried,” Nate Byrnes said, as he and his wife, Katie, kept an eye on the old sycamore in front of their home on Franklin Street during Sunday's wind storm.  “The tree’s great. We love having it.” (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Gorden said it is extraordinary to see a tree of such girth towering above a busy city neighborhood, “within the confines of all that asphalt and cement.” Long ago, out of respect for the tree, some city planner laid out the sidewalk in the shape of a half-moon as a way to steer clear of the elephantine trunk.

The question remains unclear on how the tree became known as the city’s oldest. According to clippings at the Buffalo History Museum, the oldest tree in the city in 1935 was said to be an oak at Forest Lawn Cemetery. By 1942, a Boy Scout named Charles Throm, from Bennett High School, won a $15 award for identifying the sycamore as the “largest tree in Buffalo.”

In 1960, as part of a Congressional resolution that created a National Forest Products week, the Buffalo Lumber Exchange put up a plaque that called the sycamore the oldest in Buffalo – but Drabek, in 1981, said the honor was bestowed without much research or conversation.

What is indisputable is that the tree has been there for centuries, rising and thriving in a most unlikely place. Hassinger often stops by out of appreciation at that fortitude, and to make sure this still-green giant can withstand each coming storm.

"It's a survivor," he said, which suits the city all around it.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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