Remembering the Meadow Oak Trees

Photo by Mike James

Photos by Mike James

As many have probably seen, Filoli lost an iconic old growth oak tree this past week. Its partner fell last summer due to weakened roots. The first three photos above, from longtime Filoli member Mike James, offer a powerful reflection on their final two years with us. Oaks are powerful symbols of longevity, strength, abundance, and endurance. Every oak tree at Filoli provides a home and food to hundreds of animals and plants, and for visitors, a place to find shade or frame memorable moments. Losing these trees saddens us, but also provides a reminder of how incredible it is to witness the big moments in the cycle of nature. 

“Every living thing is part of the cycle of life,” says Jim Salyards, Filoli’s Director of Horticulture, reflecting on their departure. The wood from this tree will be repurposed as wood chips to help our living trees and plants retain water around their roots during the dry summer months and decay into organic matter and nutrients which will then be recycled by the plants. Salyards adds that “these oaks have spent hundreds of years in the presence of the land. Losing old-growth trees is part of a maturing landscape.”

Large oak tree fallen in the Meadow following wind storm on Feb 21, 2023.

Most of the trees that fall at Filoli are oaks, and there are various reasons they fail. Sudden oak disease has devastated oak woodlands in Filoli and the greater Bay Area and has been a source of major canopy loss. Droughts cause oakroot systems to weaken. Additionally, in 2022, our live oaks produced a huge acorn crop (called a mast year), which added weight to tree canopies. We annually survey all trees in and around the garden for structural and any other issues, however, the significant storm in January—our second biggest rain accumulation in 24 hours ever recorded in the past 40 years—and high winds this past weekend were the biggest cause of this tree’s failure. 

When the landscape changes naturally, it also gives Filoli staff an opportunity to think long term. Chief Operating Officer Alex Fernandez says that, after over 28 years working on the property, he has become accustomed to losing trees like these oaks. Fernandez also oversees Filoli’s tree succession plan, which considers future climate and environmental conditions when  deciding how to replace trees. “On to the next generation of trees so, in 100 years, Filoli visitors can once again enjoy a cool beverage on a hot Thursday Summer Night under the shade of a beautiful oak,” says Fernandez. “We must have patience in gardening.” 

Although we will not see another meadow tree of this magnitude in our lifetime, Filoli staff are setting the foundation for centuries to come. Please join us and share a memory or commemorative message for these oak trees. We are grateful for every moment spent with them!