On August 5, 2015 the people of Balmville in the Town of Newburgh in Orange County said goodbye to a storied old-growth eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) revered by many big tree lovers. Core samples showed it to be 316 years old, far exceeding the expected life span for cottonwoods (app. 70 years); it was the oldest of its species in the United States. FDR made frequent trips to admire the Balmville Tree. The hamlet of Balmville was so named because the tree was originally thought to be a balm-of-Gilead (Populus x jackii).
NYS Department of Environmental Conservation took over the maintenance of the tree in 1976. In 2000, the site of the tree was made NY’s smallest state park and entered into the National Register of Historic Places. Concerns about the hazards posed by its overly mature (hollow) limbs and trunk led to extensive pruning, guying, and cabling, and finally, the painful decision to remove it.
When it was removed, the trunk was 25 feet in circumference and the tree was 83 feet tall. Before storm damage from Hurricane Floyd in 1999 necessitated pruning, the tree had reached 110 feet tall. A dignified 15-foot-tall stump remains.
Many people tried unsuccessfully to propagate the tree from cuttings. The only known progeny is the “Son of Balmville” across the street, where Richard and Emoke Severo were able to get a cutting to root.
DEC Senior Forester George Profous encourages readers to learn more about the NYS Big Tree Register. “Large historic trees are often among the oldest structures in our communities,” he says. “They can become an anchor, a focus of our communities in a rapidly changing world.”