A Nearly 300-Year-Old Oak at Lincoln Park Zoo is Nearing Its End

Obviously, the Lincoln Park Zoo (L.P.Z.) is a zoological park within a lager public park, but – and I feel this is not well known – it is also an arboretum.  In 2019, the Lincoln Park Zoo received arboretum accreditation from ArbNet (hosted by The Morton Arboretum).

The L.P.Z. announced in November that a tree on the zoo grounds that predated the zoo had entered the last phase of its life. People who will miss the tree will have a few months to see it one last time as it will not be removed until the spring of 2023.  It is a bur oak tree that is thought to be somewhere between 250 and 300 years old, which would mean not only is it older than the Lincoln Park Zoo, which was founded in 1868, but it predates the transformation of a cemetery into Lincoln Park. 

In fact, at that age it was already alive when the City of Chicago incorporated in 1837.  It was already here when Jean Baptiste Du Sable settled here with his family around 1790 with his family, so it predates Chicago as a community as well as a corporate body.[1] 

It was here before the U.S. Government claimed Illinois as part of the Northwest Territory.  It predates the United States of America per se but sprouted at a time when the polities that would transform into the thirteen founding states were still a collection of British colonies.  Back when the tree sprouted, Illinois was part of the French colony (known in English as) New France, yet virtually the only Frenchmen in the landscape were missionary priests who brought the Good News to the tribes of the Illinois Confederacy and fur trappers.

In a press release, the L.P.Z. stated, “A but oak tree, situated in the heart of Lincoln Park Zoo near the white-cheeked gibbon habitat, has naturally neared the end of its life, despite no disease present and years of preventative treatment efforts.  The tree, which predates the City of Chicago’ s founding in 1837, has been a part of the zoo’s natural landscape since its beginnings.  Lincoln Park Zoo plans to carefully remove the tree from the zoo grounds in spring of 2023 and encourages patrons to visit for a final look at this piece of natural history.”

“The center of the zoo was built around these historic oak trees and it is bittersweet the nearly 300-year-old tree has come to the natural end of its life,” stated Katrina Quint, Lincoln Park Zoo’s Director of Horticulture.  “The zoo is dedicated to protecting Lincoln Park Zoo’s natural environment and tree canopy to ensure all guests have a healthy, vibrant natural landscape to enjoy for generations to come.”

Credit: The Lincoln Park Zoo Caption: This is the 250-to-300-year-old bur oak tree in Lincoln Park that the Lincoln Park Zoo has announced has entered the last phase of its life.

As it ages, a bur oak tree’s bark thickens to give it a better chance of surviving fires that naturally burn across prairies.  It is a picturesque type of tree beloved by many people because it grows to a great height and its branches spread wide.

 

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In a press release, the L.P.Z. stated, “Its large accords have a fringed burry cup, can grow one-and-a-half inches long, and serve as an important food source for several [animal] species.  The tree’s average height spans 70 feet and houses many insects, birds, and squirrels in its bark, stems, and foliage.”

The L.P.Z. stated, “The longevity of this oak tree is emblematic of the breadth and success of Lincoln Park Zoo’s succession planning efforts, spearheaded by Quint.  In her role, she succession plans upwards of 100 years in advance to protect the zoo’s natural landscape and ensure the zoo’s tree canopy remains robust and full for centuries, especially considering the worsening effects of climate change.  With more than 900 species of plants under the care of Lincoln Park Zoo’s horticulture crew, succession planning is crucial for maintaining the natural landscape of the zoo and the surrounding region.”

The Lincoln Park Zoo is both one of the last free zoos in America and one of the largest free zoos in America.  It traces its origins to the donation of swans by Central Park in New York City in 1868, so the L.P.Z. celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2018Marlin Perkins (1905-1986) was Director of the Lincoln Park Zoo in roughly the mid-20th Century from 1945 to 1962, during which time he became a national celebrity as the host of ZooParade before he became a global celebrity as the host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, as well as Director of the St. Louis Zoo.  Approximately 3,000,000 people per year used to visit the gorilla Bushman while he resided at the Lincoln Park Zoo until he died around the age of twenty-three in 1951, after which taxidermists at The Field Museum of Natural History prepared his remains for display there. 

The Lincoln Park Zoo is located in the middle of the Chicago Park District’s vast Lincoln Park on the lakeshore of Lake Michigan.  A non-profit organization, the Lincoln Park Zoological Society, manages the Lincoln Park Zoo.  More than 85% of the Lincoln Park Zoo’s capital and operating costs are covered by contributions from visitors, members, and donors.  Click here to donate to the Lincoln Park Zoo. 

            Approximately 200 animal species are represented at the zoo.  The address is 2001 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois 60614.  The phone number is (312) 742-2000.


[1] Jean Baptiste Du Sable is often referred to as if he lived here alone, but he had the company and no doubt the help of his family.  His wife was an American Indian woman named Catherine.  They had a son named after him and a daughter named Susanne who wed a Frenchman named Jean Baptiste Pelletier. Jean Baptiste and Catherine Du Sable’s granddaughter, Eulalie Pelletier, was born in Chicago in 1796 and later baptized at Cahokia.

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