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Home, Garden, and Car Care Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 2, 2008

After more than a century, Old Snarley still weeps in Albany…

By Zach Simeone

ALBANY — Trees provide us certain luxuries: decoration for our gardens, a natural jungle gym for our children, air to breathe. One tree in this city has provided all three for more than a century — through two world wars, depression, boom, and 21 presidencies.

In 1881, world-renowned English architect Robert Williams Gibson arrived in Albany, from where he launched his career. In 1886, he built a home of pink Potsdam sandstone at 5 Englewood Place. It would be the home of James E. Craig and his family.

After the home’s next owner, John N. Huyck, died in 1923, his widow, Anna, sold the property to the family of Peter D. Kiernan. The Kiernan children played in the hulking weeping beech tree adjacent to the home, and nicknamed it “Old Snarley.”

Now, the University at Albany Foundation owns the property. The house, which bears a Historic Albany Foundation plaque at the front entrance, is home to the university president.

Old Snarley was one of several fagus sylvatica pendulas sent to Albany from Europe, where the species grows naturally. Reilly, City Forester Tom Pfeiffer, City Historian Tony Opalka, and former owner Mary Mincy all estimate its age at over a hundred years. Its exact age is unknown, and not one of them knew whether or not it was planted when the house was built. But with the house being nearly 125 years old, and a weeping beech having a life expectancy of well over a century, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility.

The tree is cared for by the university’s grounds crew. “The university hasn’t owned the residence all that long,” said Tim Reilly, grounds manager at the university. “I think we probably bought that residence about 10 years ago, and, obviously, the tree came with the property. There are many beautiful trees on campus,” he said, “but that one is really remarkable.”

Gnarly Old Snarley

“The general characteristics make it really unique,” Reilly said.

“Many trees that age go up 30 feet before you see the first limb,” he said. That stretch of trunk between the ground and the first limb is called the veneer, and is highly valued by the timber industry.

Old Snarley, on the other hand, has limbs that start about two feet off the ground, with branches nearly 15 inches in diameter. The thickest limbs, starting just above its base, are massive enough to be mistaken as four additional trunks.

Pfeiffer said that Old Snarley stands about 50 feet tall.

“The limbs that grow from the main trunk of the tree, they tend to grow out directly, and the branches from that seem to weep down once they get 15 feet from the trunk,” said Reilly. “So, you’ve got this deep interior once you get inside. It’s just got some neat characteristics — this gnarlyness, the way it grew, and the way it holds its form and shape.”

The weeping beech is true to its name in its arching branches that reach for the ground. “This tree has such canopy on it, that it doesn’t have much grass under it; it’s mostly just dirt,” Reilly explained. “If you were to stand underneath it, you could probably stay dry from a rainstorm — it’s got that dense of a canopy.” And yet, if you sit beneath the tree and look up at it, you can see the sky peeking through its branches.

Reilly estimates that the tree’s roots reach out as far as one-third of its height. “Beech trees are more surface feeders, so the root system will travel in a more lateral fashion, out from the trunk some 20 feet past the drip line,” he said. The drip line is the tree’s outer circumference, where rain runs off the leaves to the ground. “It’s certainly got a unique leaf to it,” he added. “It’s a shiny leaf.”

Human touch

Names and initials are carved into the tree’s colossal trunk, perhaps names of those who have played in it: “ED,” “GM,” “GG,” and “John,” to name a few. The carvings have been partially covered by the growth of new bark, but the slight difference in color between the old and new bark allows the names to remain visible.

Despite its rugged appearance, the bark is soft to the touch. “It’s got some real outstanding outbursts from the trunk that it just seems to pop out, and yet it’s got a smooth bark,” Reilly said. “It’s not rough to the touch, and yet, it’s got a lot of irregularities in it. This is not your typical tree.”

Mary Mincy, who lived in the old house for nearly 30 years and raised her children there, now lives next door. She said that she is unhappy with the treatment received by Old Snarley since the university purchased the property.

“I’m very distressed at the lack of care that has been given to that tree,” she said. “A limb broke, another major limb has a crack in it, it’s filling up with water in the center of the tree; it just needs so much work. I chaired Albany Beautification for 10 years, so I know a little about this. I had some real specimens there, and that tree was the oldest one.”

Reilly said of the tree, “We’ve put cables through the limbs and gone back into the main trunk to hold them because they’re so heavy, they’ve started to split. So, it’s more for preservation. It does need some care once it gets that big. You can imagine the stress that’s on some of those limbs is tremendous,” he said. “I think that the cabling wouldn’t be necessary if you just went in and selectively trimmed often enough, if it was maintained more meticulously over time,” he admits.

Still, Reilly thinks that Old Snarley will be around for a while.

“Within acceptable site conditions — room to grow, no mechanical injury, and regular maintenance — I believe it would not be unlikely to have a tree live past 150 years,” he said, and it has had few life-threatening diseases. “The normal infestations of aphids or fungi can be controlled with proper application of spray oils.”

Gibson died in 1927, but the house he built at 5 Englewood Place, and its arboreal sidekick, remain a valued, historic piece of the state’s capital.

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