Demise appears imminent for butternut tree planted to honor pioneer

A Capitol Campus tree-planting project that got off to a controversial start last spring appears to be headed for a sad ending.

A butternut tree transplanted from the former homestead of Tumwater black pioneer George Bush, and also used to memorialize Martin Luther King Jr., is dying.

The 16-foot sapling planted on the historic west Capitol Campus in April is a leafless, skeletal-looking specimen.

“I wouldn’t write if off 100 percent at this point, but it’s not looking good,” said Michael Dolan, owner of Burnt Ridge Nursery in Onalaska. “We’ll know by next spring, if not sooner, if it will survive.”

The memorial tree is a direct descendant of a butternut tree that Bush brought with him by wagon from Missouri, then planted in 1845 on his Tumwater homestead near the Deschutes River.

The original tree still is alive, towering over the home of Tony and Marilyn Sexton, the couple who donated the sapling to the state Department of General Administration to honor Bush’s founding role in South Sound and, for that matter, Washington.

“The old tree has a nice crop of butternuts this year – the first time in three years,” Tony Sexton said the other day. “They’re just starting to fall from the tree.”

As for the sapling, Sexton said, “It’s on its way out.”

So what happened to the scion of the historic butternut tree?

The tree was transplanted late in the year after it had started to bud. Ideally, it would have been root-pruned last year to prepare for the move in the dead of winter, while it still was dormant.

But that didn’t happen. Originally, General Administration was going to plant a seedling from Dolan’s nursery on the Capitol Campus, but it failed to place an order before they all were sold by the nursery.

So they turned to the sapling on Sexton’s property as an emergency backup, transplanting it in time for an Arbor Day celebration in honor of Bush. But they also used the Bush butternut tree to honor MLK, responding to a request by state Sen. Rosa Franklin, D-Tacoma.

The ceremony was contentious because the Sextons and many South Sound history buffs thought that the tree should have been used to memorialize Bush alone.

Some of the tension in the air washed away that day as black clergy and civic leaders from Tacoma and Seattle heard for the first time the story – ably told by venerable South Sound history buff and Bush scholar Winnifred Olsen – of the Bush family quest for freedom from racism and the critical role Bush and his sons played in early South Sound agricultural production and community building.

Sexton questions whether the sapling was property cared for after it was moved, which, he said, should have included a daily watering regimen. General Administration officials insist it was watered and tended to regularly.

“The tree was not neglected after the planting,” said Neal Wolbert, a historic-tree lover and the owner of Wolbert’s Landscape Healthcare. The ill-timed transplanting and drought-like summer weather likely led to the tree’s demise, Wolbert said.

If the Capitol Campus tree dies, the Sextons have another, 10-foot offshoot of the historic tree that they would be willing to donate to honor Bush.

Dolan said GA also could choose from some tiny seedlings he has, but it would be years before such a tree had much stature.

Meanwhile, the stature of the historic tree grew this summer based on some DNA sampling of the tree conducted by retired University of Vermont forestry professor Dale Bergdahl, a leading expert on butternut canker, a disease that is killing butternut trees across their natural range in the Midwest and Eastern United States.

Turns out the Bush butternut tree is a purebred specimen, unlike the trees found in other parts of the U.S., which are hybrid butternut trees from a 19th century decision to cross the native butternuts with a Japanese walnut species.

In the East, butternuts live about 100 years, Bergdahl said. By comparison, the Bush tree is about 165 years old.

“It’s the oldest documented butternut tree in the world,” Dolan said.

The 60-foot tree has also become home to three raccoons, which doesn’t bode well for tree health.

Does anybody have some live traps Sexton could borrow to catch the pesky critters? If so, give him a call at 360-705-0662.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444