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Big tree

If only God can make a tree, then Utah County grounds workers are God's official helpers.

Because of them and their efforts over the past decades, the very rare Ulmus Americana tabletop elm in the courtyard south of the administration building is thriving - despite the fact that it's more than 70 years old.And it's huge.

The canopy spans 97 feet, though the tree itself stands only 28 feet tall. Tangled black branches support a thick layer of leaves that provide cool shade for what's become a lunchtime haunt and a unique 14-ton mascot of sorts for Utah County government.

"We think it was planted in the 1920s because we have pictures back that far that show the tree in them," said Rick Henrie, parks and grounds maintenance director.

However, descendants of Moroni W. Christopherson say the tree was donated to the county in 1926 by the owner of an Ogden nursery. Christopherson used to work in the county building.

Whatever the story, today the unusual tree is the 73-year-old baby of the grounds department.

It doesn't really fit the profile of the traditional elm and has outlived the average city tree seven times over.

Local tree surgeon Dick Hallsey believes it's the only tree of its kind in the world.

Four employees of the parks department, including Henrie, horticulturist Tom Hill, grounds supervisor Dave Vincent, and pruner Kane Insixiengmay, focus on the tree's well-being - well aware that they're expected to keep the tree alive and growing, whatever it takes.

When the new county administration building was put out to bid, a provision was written into the contract insisting that the tree be preserved.

"We have an unwritten mandate," Henrie said. "If there's any priorities, this tree is it."

It was one of the first trees to be named a Utah Heritage Tree when the program began in the 1980s. That means the Utah Community Forest Council gets first call when a decision has to be made that will affect the tree.

But taking care of the ancient tree is a mighty challenge.

It takes daily maintenance, water and attention. When the new building was constructed, the designer tried to put in flower beds that would have destroyed the shallow root system that's as spread out as the upper canopy. A careless ditch digger failed to notice his proximity to the tree one day and dug through 50 percent of the roots network.

The tree survived both assaults.

There's also a constant battle to fend off aphids and scale. Hill recently brought in three packages of 1,500 Ladybugs to eat the aphids. The parks people spray each spring for the scale.

They've increased the elevation around the trunk each year to keep the roots covered.

Each fall, it takes six to seven dumptruck loads to carry away the fallen leaves. Limbs are pruned judiciously each fall to keep the tree from invading the administration building parking lot and from threatening building windows.

Currently 17 wooden and metal braces hold up branches that have become too heavy for the tree to keep off the ground.

"Right now, we're working on the design of some special permanent braces that will replace these," Henrie said, pushing on one of the temporary wooden braces. "We want some that won't damage the branch and that will allow movement while still providing support. They have redwood cushions that actually hold the branch and a ball and swivel concrete base."

The braces will also provide a place for informational plaques that tell visitors about the tree and its long history with Utah County.

"We get probably three to four inquiries a week about it," Henrie said. "We're kind of proud of the old tree. We're just not sure, is this a fluke of nature? Or is it here because the protected environment has encouraged its survival?"

Seedlings taken from the big tree haven't grown into the same kind of tabletop shape.

Henrie said the braces came in after the tree lost a big limb during a storm. "The best advice we'd had before then was to leave it alone. After that we went to the props. Without them, the branches would hang to the ground."

Henrie said part of the trick is to balance public safety against what's good for the tree.

They've asked that no one climb on the tree although it's a great temptation. The branches are low, large and inviting.

"It's a challenge to love the old tree," Vincent said. "But it's a challenge we enjoy."