In early January, Francoise Elizabeth Boré and Aline Delachaise Dugué welcomed a duo of newcomers to their home of many years. Rebecca Grant Popp was there, as was Mrs. Isidore Newman. Sara Hyams, Beulah Joseph and Mrs. Maurice Stern joined the party that greeted the new arrivals.
The scene was not a grand mansion but a splendid site of another sort: The oak alley, or allée, in Audubon Park connecting the Hyams fountain on the river side of Magazine Street to the Newman Bandstand on the lake side.
The hosts were a double line of 100-plus year old live oaks that compose the allée, all of them named members of the Live Oak Society.
“Every year in January, Daniel (Illg), our arborist, and I get together to map out priorities for tree planting in the park,” said Dianne Weber, grounds director for Audubon Zoo and Park. “In 2015, we came up with the idea of replacing the two oaks in the oak allée that had been lost over the years.”
There were concerns that the project might not be affordable, but then Chevron approached the park about making a donation to support the reestablishment of the tree canopy, an ongoing need since Hurricane Katrina destroyed about a thousand of the park’s trees.
Presented with the option of having the donation fund a grove of small trees or importing and planting two large trees, the grounds team opted for the latter, and planning began.
“We knew we needed to find trees that were big enough to blend in as much as possible,” said Lee Stansberry, of Bayou Tree Service, the company that partnered with the park on the project. “In late September, Daniel and I flew to Orlando to Cherry Lake Tree Farm to hand-pick what we wanted. We had to look hard to find trees that were 16 or 17 inches in diameter. A number of them had horizontal growth habits, but we were looking for some that were more vertical in order to maximize the height.”
Illg and Stansberry tagged the two 30-foot-tall trees that they had chosen and then returned to New Orleans to await winter and optimum planting conditions.
“Things didn’t exactly go as planned,” recalled Weber. “They trees arrived just after Christmas, but it was raining on the day we were supposed to plant them, and it didn’t stop for days. We had to store the trees near the stables for two or three weeks until the ground had dried out enough to drive equipment on it safely.”
Weighing about 5 tons each and occupying containers measuring 1,400 gallons, the trees could easily have caused the front-end loader carrying them to sink into the muck or topple over. Meanwhile, the holes that had been dug to receive them (measuring 90 inches square by 60 inches deep) were filled with water. After things dried out, the trees were lowered into their holes and leveled, and natural backfill was added.
“The native soil is nutrient-rich, so we used it to fill the holes, tamping it down layer by layer before we built a berm around each tree to retain rainwater,” explained Stansberry. “Aftercare is a simple process of good water management. The goal is to slowly wean the trees off of water being brought to them, to challenge them to push their roots out into the natural earth slowly, seeking water.”
According to Stansberry, the 28 trees on each side of the allée have survived as well as they have because they are growing in ground that is slightly elevated above its surroundings and sheds water.
Topography, he said, is working in the trees’ favor.
“The oaks in the allée are more than 250 years old — they were planted by Étienne de Boré, whose sugarcane plantation was located here. His house would have been where the sea lion pool is now in the zoo, and the oak allée would have led to it. The George Washington and Martha Washington oaks would have framed the view of it,” said Weber, referring to two additional Audubon trees that meet the girth and age requirements for being accepted for registration with the Live Oak Society. Although the George Washington oak has perished, the Martha Washington oak lives on in the rhino exhibit in the zoo.
Both Weber and Stansberry understand that the two new additions won’t rival their allée-mates in size for many years. But in the meantime, they can monitor the condition of the youngsters and support their growth into adulthood.
“I checked on them a few days ago, and they are doing just what they should be doing — new growth is pushing out the old leaves. But it will really take another year before we know how well they have rooted out,” said Stansberry. “Time will tell.”