— In a lush green valley nestled in the rolling hills of southern Oregon, Ken Roberts is nursing his babies — baby trees, that is. He feels like a father, and sometimes he feels like a founding father.
"George Washington planted a tulip poplar with his own hand at his plantation at Mount Vernon in Virginia," Roberts said. "I have a seedling from that tree."
He does indeed. Roberts has the direct offspring of Washington's tulip poplar growing at his home in Grant's Pass, Ore. And he has offspring from thousands of other historical American trees, too.
"I've got everything that will grow here," he said. "I have trees from Abraham Lincoln's birth site. I've got the pin oak from John Fitzgerald Kennedy's grave. I've got trees from Helen Keller's home."
Roberts, a former broker who moved to rural Oregon to get away from the fast pace of the commodities trade, says his trees connect him with history — and he adores history.
"You can have all this history and character around you and it can be there for you every day," he said. "There is something that connects me in that that I like."
Roberts got the seedlings for his trees from the American Forests Historic Tree Nursery in Jacksonville, Fla. American Forests, the nation's oldest nonprofit environmental group, is determined to save America's arboreal history. The group created the nursery to harvest the seeds from America's historic trees and then sell them to anyone who wants to connect with history.
"We're trying to take people who think of themselves as historians and turn them into tree planters," said Jeffrey Meyer, the nursery's founding project director.
Hundreds of Historic Trees Available
Hundreds of the direct offspring of the nation's historic trees are available at the nursery. The Osage orange that was brought back as a seedling to Virginia by the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and then planted in front of the home of patriot Patrick Henry is available. So are seedlings from the last surviving Rambo apple tree planted by Johnny Appleseed. The tree is in Ohio and believed to have been planted in 1830.
Roberts has taken seedlings from the apple tree and created an orchard of more than 2,000 trees. Someday soon he hopes children will be able to visit his home, get in touch with their own history and perhaps taste an apple that will taste the same as it would have to the pioneers.
American Forests also offers seedlings from the trees of noted Americans who helped shape the country in other ways. There is the red maple from Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond. There is the ash that grew outside the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. The black walnut that grew beside the home of frontier lawman Wyatt Earp is also available.
The most popular seedling is the George Washington poplar. Second is the Japanese cherry tree, which brings so much color to the U.S. Capitol in Washington each spring. The trees were a gift from the emperor of Japan to President and Mrs. Taft.
But the third most popular seedling — and demand for it is growing — is from the oak trees that line the driveways at Elvis Presley's home, Graceland, in Memphis, Tenn.
Roberts has the Elvis tree growing in Grant's Pass and jokes that it sometimes sings to him. But all of Roberts' trees say something to him. In one way or another, they have grounded him in the nation's history.