Centennial Tree Program:

Centennial Trees: A community educational tree planting program started at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens

The next tree planting is scheduled for November 7, 2020. Several hundred new seedlings will be planted, adding to over one-thousand planted along Shades Creek since 2015. Species planted in the Shades Creek floodplain include: red and white oaks, blackgum, tupelo, walnut, hickory, persimmon, catalpa, hornbeam and hop-hornbeam. The species planted near the banks for soil stabilization include box-elder, sycamore, ash, black willow and alder.

Seeds have been selected from the original native forest surrounding Shades Creek. Seed trees over one hundred years old have been identified and selected, the most recent descendants of a forest thousands of years old. They serve as seed trees for propagating a new generation of native forest trees, named Centennial Trees. Centennial Trees, adapted to local soils, sites and climate, have a greater potential to live over a hundred years, well into the 22nd century, than trees not native to the sites. Beginning in 2019, direct seeding trials using natural fiber matting have been established in partnership with the Cahaba River Society.

Ecologically, Centennial Trees, locally sourced native trees, are synchronized with Birmingham’s growing seasons, breaking bud in the spring and entering dormancy in the winter with the trees of the surrounding native forest. They also are synchronized with the growth and development and movements of animal populations, from cicadas to salamanders to migratory birds, that depend on them for food, shelter and reproduction.

Aesthetically, native tree species are as iconic to the Birmingham landscape as its historic architecture. Many can be found in the “green infrastructure” of our historic city parks, such as George Ward Park, and our landscape-scale parks, such as Red Mountain Park. Planting these locally-sourced trees back is essential for preserving the aesthetic and ecological character of our parks.

The Centennial Tree Program is broadly applicable to many sites where the native forest has been lost, including: new housing developments on eroding slopes, tornado damaged communities, and the banks of urban waterways, such as Shades Creek and the Cahaba River, eroded by years of excessive storm water runoff. The program is unique among botanical gardens nationally. The Birmingham model has application to virtually any cultural landscape that features mature native forest tree species, but that lacks natural seedling regeneration to support a future forest. Centennial Trees are an important part of Friends of Shades Creek’s effort to restore the native forest of Shades Creek. Over one-thousand have been planted on Shades Creek since 2014.

Henry Hughes, founding member (in 1998) and current executive director of Friends of Shades Creek, has served on the boards of the Cahaba River Society and the Alabama Rivers Alliance. Particularly interested in riparian forest preservation and restoration, he studied forestry and botany at Sewanee: University of the South and plant and soil science at the University of Kentucky and Texas A&M University. He worked in forestry in Alabama for twenty-five years and retired from the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, in 2018 after ten years as director of education.