Weeping Hemlock Gets TLC

Mary Johnson PhotoThe storms of the past few years failed to destroy a magnificent weeping hemlock, a landmark tree in Branford that’s close to 150 years old.

However, Superstorm Sandy blew down a nearby apple tree, which damaged several branches of what is known as a Sargent’s weeping hemlock, so arborists came to Short Beach Road this weekend to make some repairs. 

The Branford tree is designated as a Connecticut Champion tree by the Notable Trees Project, sponsored by the Connecticut Botanical Society, the Connecticut College Arboretum and the Connecticut Urban Forest Council. It’s assigned a value of 132 points, based on the addition of its circumference at 4-1/2 feet above the ground), height in feet and one-quarter of the average canopy spread in feet. The tree is 18 feet high, has a circumference of 105 inches and spread of 45 feet.

Mary Johnson PhotoThe hemlock sits in a little hollow on Short Beach Road in a rather unremarkable location. Over the weekend workers from The Care of Trees of Hamden, under contract by the town, were cleaning up a lot of its dead wood and installing cables to support branches weakened by the storm. A large scar (pictured) was apparent where a branch had been sheared off.

Mary Johnson PhotoNick Nutcher, (pictured) one of the two arborists clambering among the twisted branches of the tree, said the exposed areas will be treated with a horticultural oil that will suffocate the woolly adelgid, a bug that infests Hemlocks. The bug feeds by sucking the tree’s sap; it’s evidenced by little white dots. He said the tree is maintained regularly by the town, and was checked out in the last year, adding it was the second or third time he had worked on it.

Sargent’s weeping hemlocks are characterized by an umbrella-like cascade of branches. Walking underneath them is like entering into a room. (Indeed, a pile of beer cans and bottle indicated that it’s been used as such.) The trunk and branches have a gnarled, twisted appearance.

The hemlock wasn’t always so well cared for. An article written for The New York Times by Joan Lee Faust on Feb. 9, 1986, described it as “neglected and subject to some vandalism. Burn marks on the trunk indicate that a fire may have been set near it, and the ground underneath it is compacted.”

So, Branford doctor and plantsman Nickolas Nickou and planning and zoning member John Moss took the tree under their wings, so to speak. 

John Moss, a professional horticulturalist, was a Branford man of all seasons—an early member of the Branford Land Trust and a leader in many Branford organizations, including the Branford Rotary Club, the United Way of Branford, the Branford Festival, the Academy on the Green Commission, the Young’s Pond Commission and the Branford Historical Society. He died in 2003.

He said back then: “Saving of this unusual specimen in a mini-park would be a great asset to the town, as well as the development.” 

According to the Times article, “Dr. Nickou said he had been told about the tree ‘more than 20 years ago. ‘I had driven past it and was aware of its existence, but it was surrounded by briars and enormous rhododendrons and saplings of various tree species.

‘When I went in recently to examine it carefully, I found it to be of very impressive proportions. That’s when I called my friend, Gus Kelley, because I knew of his interest in conifers.’”

Augustus Kelley was a conifer enthusiast and publisher of “Dwarf Conifer Notes.” Kelley said, “Maybe if it is cleaned up and preserved, the lower branches might just sweep to the ground.”

Kelley died in 1999.

Carol Hanby’s and Dr. Nickou’s gardens at their residence on Sunset Hill Road in Branford is often open to tours. This weekend, Hanby said that they haven’t been to see the tree in several years. “We’re proud of it,” she said. “We have one in our yard. People need to see it.”

Also cited in the Times article was was Peter Del Tredici of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in Boston, Mass., who said such trees were popular during the Victorian era. He said the Sargent’s weeping hemlock is long lived and “gets more beautiful over time.”

According to the article: “The original weeping hemlocks can be traced to wild seedlings found more than 100 years ago in the vicinity of what is now Beacon, N.Y. The weeping for was named for Henry Winthrop Sargent, who was the first to introduce the tree to horticulture.”

Mary Johnson PhotoIn 1986, Dr. Nickou (who is now 91) said there’s something of a mystery to the tree and wondered “who was interested enough in plants, over 100 years ago, to procure a relatively unknown variety, which was unique even in those days.”

At the time of the article, the property, formerly a farm, was owned by Wendell Rice, a local developer, who said he intended to preserve the tree in an open area with public access to it.”

Subsequently the land was turned into a subdivision and the tree stands in a protected area just off the road.

And its branches do indeed sweep to the ground.


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