How Fort Leavenworth Became Home To Kansas' Oldest Pecan Tree | KCUR

How Fort Leavenworth Became Home To Kansas' Oldest Pecan Tree

Nov 2, 2017

Fort Leavenworth isn't just a military base with a lot of historic architecture. It's also a place where you can find one of Kansas' oldest trees.

Just east of the airfield there is a 200-acre stretch of land on a flood plain that's become an accidental wildlife refuge. It's the largest stretch of contiguous forest along the lower Missouri River.

RELATED: 5 Champion Trees Worth Seeing In Kansas And Missouri

The stretch of land is basically a snapshot of what the the river banks would have looked like before the developed world came along. It has remained an important stop for migratory birds, and it's the home to Kansas's oldest pecan tree grove, where the state champion lives.

"Whereas in other areas along the Missouri River, in the proximity, people cleared the land so they could build cities right? They cleared the land so they could farm it so they could feed the people in the cities," says Neil Bass. 

Kansas Forest Service keeps a map of all the champion trees for the state. Currently Fort Leavenworth is home to 10 state champions.
Credit Kansas Forest Service

Bass is the natural resources manager on the base. Fort Leavenworth was founded 190 years ago, before Kansas was even a state. So there are a lot of historical trees there. Currently the base is home to 10 state champion species. It's a point that makes Neil Bass proud.

"In most cases the trees that people experience aren't very old, like in the cityscape, man, the trees can be really young," says Bass.

The champion tree program started in the 1940 by the non-profit American Forests as a means to record and celebrate our nations oldest and most spectacular trees. Dedicated arborists contribute annually to the national list, individual state lists, and even city lists. Check out lists for Missouri and Kansas.

Considering our region and the species around here, arborists get excited about a tree even over 100 years old. Which is a thing that makes this pecan grove along the river bank particularly special for Bass.

We know this tree is well over 200 years old. Tree people don't like to call a tree a certain age without coring the tree, which can damage it. But we have a sense of the tree's age because explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark wrote about it in their journal.

"Yeah, this is the grove of trees that they would have seen on July 1, 1804 when they paddled by and mentioned giant pecan trees on the south bank," says Bass.

Although pecans are native to Kansas, a wild grove this far north is unusual. Bass says this could be a sign that there may be more to the story behind these trees.

"Some people speculate ... they weren't here naturally," says Bass. "That probably some Native American tribes had brought them from further south and planted them down here so that they could have pecans. So that they wouldn't have to journey all the way down to the Spring River and in southern Kansas, where there's tons of pecan trees."

Regardless, the pecan trees that remain today in Leavenworth are a part of our living history.

The 200-acre flood plain and old growth forest along the bank is not necessarily easy to get to. You need to show identification and have a background check to enter the base. And the pecan grove is a hike through overgrown weeds and box elder trees so thick that make even a mile hike, a challenging task.

Neil Bass hugs the new Kansas State Champion pecan tree. It has a circumference of 208 inches and is 130 feet tall.
Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR 89.3

But it is a sight to see.

"If you think of the age, I mean like the things and the changes that this tree has seen. I guess trees don't see right." Bass says, laughing.

"The things that have gone on, like, while this tree has been alive. This tree was here before our country was here. It's just that something that has been able to survive for that long, has something special about it."

Suzanne Hogan is a contributor for KCUR 89.3. Email her at suzanne@kcur.org.