By Connie Veates, Trees Atlanta

I’ve often wondered about the stories that trees could tell us as they stand sentry for decades observing events and people from one single vantage point. I am especially curious about Atlanta’s Champion trees….those trees that are among the oldest and largest in our city. As I was recently perusing the list of Champion trees on our website, one caught my eye…the Devil’s walking stick at Woodlands Garden in Decatur.

Kate Baltzell, Executive Director of Woodlands Garden (and previous Trees Atlanta Adult Education Manager), recently took me on a tour of this beautiful urban preserve; 7.1 acres of natural Piedmont Forest. If you haven’t visited this lovely spot in Decatur, you should definitely make the trip.

As we walked along, Kate pointed out various specimens including their Champion Devil’s walking stick tree. I had never seen one before and was quite in awe of the prickly trunk and the unusually large size of this particular tree. After some quick research I learned that Aralia spinosa, or Devil’s walking stick, is a moderate to highly preferred deer browse from the ginseng family (Araliaceae) found throughout the southeastern United States that also goes by several other common names, including prickly ash, Hercules club and toothache tree, among others.

I found myself musing about the stories that this strange tree could tell about the family who once occupied this garden as their home. When Dr. Chester Morse of Massachusetts and Eugenia Slack Morse of Decatur first moved to this wooded land in 1946, Scott Boulevard was a dirt road and their property, an old farm site, was a honeysuckle jungle. Chet and Gene added to their original small parcel to create the 7-acre tract that is now Woodlands Garden. In 2002, Chet and Gene Morse arranged to have their Decatur home and its surrounding seven acres permanently preserved from development so future generations could experience and enjoy their wooded estate.

A few miles from the Decatur woodland, another way to experience stories about trees is through a new and unique installation on the Atlanta BeltLine Arboretum called, “If Trees Could Sing”. Trees Atlanta and The Nature Conservancy partnered to bring this Nashville-originated program to Atlanta.

Specific trees with custom signs are designed to bring people closer to nature via their smartphones. QR codes or texts connect visitors with video testimonials from a growing list of musicians, including Amy Grant, Taylor Hicks, Chuck Leavell, 8Ball and Kathy Mattea, talking about their favorite tree species and the importance of conservation. New videos will continue to be added from other well-known musicians, including some with ties to Atlanta. The program was originally installed in parks in Nashville, Tennessee and is expanding to other cities in that state as well.

Keyboardist for many rock legends including the Rolling Stones, Chuck Leavell said, “Being a part of ‘If Trees Could Sing’ has given me the opportunity to bring together two things that I am incredibly passionate about: music and nature. I hope this program will help people discover the importance of trees and the role they play in our environment.”

I may never know any of the stories that these trees could tell us, but I am excited to learn from these talented musicians about their experiences with specific trees. It’s an unusual and fun way to get to know more about trees and how they played a role in people’s lives. My co-worker always says that to know a tree’s name is to begin to love that tree and these stories exemplify that. Which reminds me…I need to go visit “my” walking stick tree one more time.