Take a 10-minute stroll south of 33rd Street near Boulevard in Edmond and you may be surprised at what you find. Past the sweet smelling honeysuckle and butterfly bushes and beyond the tranquil pond at Bickham-Rudkin Park, there’s a fork in the pavement and a tree with a past that’s quite a mystery.
A 20,000-pound weeping Japanese pagoda tree now calls the Margaret Annis Boys Centennial Arboretum home, thanks to an unusual partnership between a health care provider, a construction company and the Edmond Urban Forestry Department.
“When we first started developing plans for Mercy I-35 Edmond, we knew we wanted a nature preserve on the grounds,” said David Tew, COO of Mercy West Communities. “But we didn’t know what an incredibly diverse family of trees, shrubs and plants lived there. About ten years previous, a landscaping company abandoned its nursery there, so we had some very interesting vegetation.”
Rather than bulldoze the unusual flora, Mercy and the general contractor for Mercy I-35 Edmond, McCarthy, opened up the site so local organizations could come and adopt some of the abandoned plants. At the same time, the Edmond Urban Forestry Department visited the site to verify the condition of the proposed tree preservation. That’s when the pagoda was spotted.
“Right away it struck me as a really interesting tree,” said Ryan Oschner, Edmond Urban Forestry Department coordinator. “I’d never seen one before. I started researching them and found they’re pretty rare in the United States.”
Oschner consulted with his forestry service colleagues and college professors. He checked with local and national growers and had no luck finding a similar tree. The only place he found to purchase a weeping Japanese pagoda was China – and those trees were small, with only two-inch diameter trunks. This tree measured 13-foot tall by 16-foot wide.
“I thought, 'We need to save this tree',” he said. “I thought it’d be neat if we could move the tree to an area where the public could enjoy it. I mentioned the idea to David Tew and he was really interested in helping us move it.”
While plans were made and a new home for the tree was found, Mercy and McCarthy went to work protecting the adopted tree. They built a fence around it to protect it from ongoing construction and pruned, mulched and watered it to keep it thriving during last summer’s intense heat wave.
Surviving Oklahoma’s hottest summer on record was an accomplishment in itself for the tree. For Oschner, Mercy and McCarthy, moving a tree of that size would prove to be no easy task either. The pagoda was growing in sandy soil, so it needed special supports so its root foundation wouldn’t erode. Even if crews could uproot and transport the huge adoptee, there was no guarantee it would survive in its new home.
After a nerve-wracking 3.5-mile move on the back of a flatbed truck, the pagoda settled into its new bed in the city’s arboretum. And seven months later, it’s thriving.
“Every step of the way, we couldn’t have asked for better results,” said Oschner. “I’ve already seen how much people have enjoyed it. People see it now at the arboretum and they remember it from the nursery. One citizen even gave me a hug and thanked me for saving it.”
Oschner said he was grateful for Mercy’s support and that the reason he got into this industry actually had a lot to do with health and wellness.
“I went into this kind of work because the environment people live in is important to their mental and physical health,” he said. “I want to give people a reason to go outside. In this case, to see a rare tree and to take a walk around a park.”
No one knows how the tree arrived in Edmond. It’s said the owner of that nursery had a taste for rare plants. Possibly the pagoda – whose age is difficult to estimate according to Oschner; it could be anywhere from 20 to 100 years old – traveled as a tiny sapling on order from China many years ago. Only the tree and the nursery owner keep that secret.
But, we know that after more than ten years of sitting untouched in an abandoned lot, this tree has a new lease on life.
“Ryan’s passion for this project was inspiring,” said Tew. “It’s more proof that the people of Edmond are committed to their green future. We’re thrilled we could play a small role in the unusual story of this tree, and that we could help Edmondites enjoy something they may have never seen otherwise.”
For its partnership and flexibility in working with the Edmond Urban Forestry Department, Mercy was awarded an E-Tree Award for “Outstanding Urban Forestry Support” March 26 before City Council members and citizens of Edmond.
Mercy is the eighth largest Catholic health care system in the U.S. and serves more than 3 million people annually. Mercy includes 31 hospitals, more than 200 outpatient facilities, 38,000 co-workers and 1,600 integrated physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. For more about Mercy, visit www.mercy.net.