The curious reason why Boerne's autumns are turning brighter
On a recent cool Friday morning in Boerne a group gave away trees, some valued at a couple of hundred dollars apiece. With the passage of time though, they’re all but guaranteed to become priceless.
It was at the old Agricultural Heritage museum, where car after car drove up and parked by a pole building a couple of hundred yards from Cibolo Creek. Volunteers greeted them.
“Hi? Are you here to pick up a tree?”
“Yes, ma’am! I’m a little early.”
The woman in charge is Suzanne Young.
“I need a volunteer. This lady would like a bag of mulch carried to her truck,” Young said.
Like clockwork, someone appeared and did as asked. The operation was smooth, like it had been done time and again. Volunteers long ago nicknamed Young "Maple Mama."
“Today is Bigtooth Maple tree giveaway. This is our 16th year,” Young said.
Young said the Lende Foundation started this tradition 16 years ago. Now, it's the Cibolo Preserve that funds the event and gives away Bigtooth Maples every November.
“Every year we receive $10,000 from the Cibolo Preserve,” she said.
She uses that $10,000 to buy 100 to 150 Bigtooth Maples, a bag of mulch per tree and fencing wire to encircle trees to keep the deer out. And then she gives them all away.
“The Bigtooth Maple is part of Boerne’s heritage and we wanted to bring it back because we lose them to the deer,” Young said. “Maples are deer candy.”
In the wild, deer eat the leaves off of young saplings, repeatedly, killing them. So even though they’re native trees, they’ve stopped reproducing around Boerne because of deer. And that’s not the only way deer kill them.
“In the fall they’re rubbing their horns along the trunk.”
That rubbing takes off the maples’ thin bark. If the bark is rubbed off on all sides, the tree dies. Trees are having a tough time in the Boerne area because oak wilt has killed a lot of the live and red oaks that dominate the hillsides. Katie Peterson knows all about oak wilt, and the damage it does to live oaks.
“We had 55 in our front yard and every one of them we lost,” she said.
Peterson was there with her son to pick up her sixth Bigtooth. She’s gotten one each year for the last six years.
“Yeah. And the colors in the fall, when they start changing, I'm telling you they're prettier than the oaks!” she said.
Russ Zink also picked up one of the trees. Asked what he did to deserve a Bigtooth Maple, he played right along.
“I didn't do anything! I volunteered to plant it myself and maintain it and keep the deer off it,” Zink said. “It's a fantastic deal!”
A steady stream of people continued to drive up and Young steered them to one of two rows of buckets.
“You get a 5 gallon so you can pick from this row right here,” she said.
The 5-gallon containers held trees that are a couple of feet tall, and the 15 gallon buckets contained trees that were 6-8 feet tall. Volunteers kept moving the people in and the trees out. People like Graham Ward, who won the prize for being the volunteer from farthest away.
“We go to Alaska in May and come back in September,” he said.
He cited one of Bigtooth Maples For Boerne’s underlying objectives.
“They would like for Boerne to be a destination for leaf peepers,” he said.
Those who love to peep at the area’s autumn leaves are finding more to look at every year. While Boerne’s only a little more than 15,000 people, Young said the sheer number of trees they’ve given away means the city’s fall color is really starting to pop.
“We're almost at 2,000. We're just short I think, 30 trees from hitting 2,000,” she said.
One of the long-time volunteers is retired high school science teacher Chuck Janzow. He’s the one who cracked the code on how best to germinate the maples’ winged seeds. In the subsequent two decades since, he’s planted tens of thousands of those tiny, sprouting seedlings.
“Just about all the trees we've given away started at our little house in Boerne when they were little seedlings,” Janzow said. “And then we sell them off to nurseries who grow them up to bigger trees.”
Then, the Bigtooth Maple for Boerne program buys them back and they return home to Boerne to be planted all over town.
“We know exactly what their pedigree is,” he said.
Donnie Hogan just moved to Boerne last year. When he heard about the program, he applied to get a tree.
“The more that we can contribute to the growth of trees for our kids and future generations, we're all for it,” he said.
Hogan said he’s not done, and hopes to be here next year at this time, once again picking up another maple. And he’s spreading the word on the program.
“Oh, absolutely. We're going to tell as many people as we can. We found out from a friend of ours in the neighborhood, so we've already told a couple of our friends,” he said.
Year by year, tree by tree, they’re returning a native tree to a place where it once thrived.
Young tends to take the long way home because she knows where every single one of those trees has been planted. They’re all plotted on a map that the Native Plant Society keeps on their website. And as autumn descends and the trees begin to turn, she has to see how they’re doing.
“There is no going straight home anymore. I always drive around and check on the maples,” she said. “They're starting to blush now. Have you seen, have you been watching?”