A Wolf Tree

By Peter Gilmer, EMGV

I recently heard the term wolf tree, and wondered what in the world that could mean. I have since learned the meaning of the term and the significance of these trees, and have discovered that we have one on our property in northern Durham county.

When settlers from Europe came to this country, they felt the forest was in their way. They were used to open fields, grazing animals and plowed soils. As they took over and cleared land, a few trees would be saved to shade the farm animals and produce nuts for the squirrels. Without the usual competition from neighboring trees common in a forest setting, the lone trees would send branches out laterally to to expose their leaves to the sun, rather than having to grow quickly towards the sky. The lower limbs of a wolf tree would not become senescent due to the shade of neighboring trees and the profile of the tree would be very different from the same species growing in the forest.

When I first saw the wolf white oak on our property, I thought something was wrong with it and that it might be dying. The main trunk was short, maybe 15 feet, and there were too many branches, some nearly horizontal. I have learned that this is common for a solo tree in a pasture setting. If the pasture is abandoned, new trees will grow but the wolf tree might have a 100 year head start, so it retains its branching habit. Our tree is easily seen in Google Earth images, surrounded now by evergreens, mostly pine and some cedar. The pasture is no longer recognizable.

The white oak (Quercus alba) on the left notable for its age, size, and habit. The main trunk is relatively short, with many branches, some of which are nearly horizontal, and it grew this way because of limited competition for many years, as the surrounding land was likely pasture (now a young evergreen forest).The white oak on the right grew in a forest setting, needing to get tall and narrow quickly to compete with the tall sweet gum and tulip popular already starting to leaf out in this photo. Photos by Peter Gilmer.

Wolf trees can be quite old. I measured the circumference of ours to be 14’ 9” at chest height, and using the tree age calculator, this tree started life in about 1740! That is amazing. Decades before the American Revolution. Beneath this tree, not seen well on the photograph, is a low stone wall surrounding an abandoned Cemetary. There are seven grave stones, and some are legible, dating to the 1850s. The tree would have been ~100 years old at the time, and the loan tree on the edge of the pasture was a perfect place for the grave site.

The term wolf tree may have originated from the appearance of the tree surrounded by much younger trees, like a lone wolf surrounded by other animals who are protecting themselves from being singled out for the kill.

These trees were once thought to be problematic from a forestry standpoint. Their multiple low branches meant that there were not long stretches of available wood for harvest, where as the same tree in a forest setting might have 60+ feet of trunk. The trees were thought to use up a disproportionate amount of nutrients, and removal was recommended in older forestry texts. It is now known that these trees actually provide significant habitat for birds, reptiles, insects, and mammals, ecological services that far exceed those provided by forest trees in a per tree comparison. These giants are to be treasured. I wonder how many this old still remain in Durham County.

*Further Reading*

Wolf Trees: Elders of the Eastern Forest (American Forests)

Defining out Landscapes: What is a Wolf Tree? (Heritage Conservancy)

Wolf Trees Provide Insight into the History of Our Land (MSU Extension)

Learn With Us, April 2022

Bull City Gardener Live! Rootstock 101 and Propagation: Stool Layering
Tuesday, April 19, 2022 10  – 11 a.m.
Sunday, April 24, 2002, 2  – 3 p.m.

You grow fruit trees to enjoy the bounty, but did you know that the part that grows in the ground is also important for the size or health of your fruit trees? Join us as we discuss rootstocks for different fruit trees we can grow here in Durham and why it matters. In the second half of class learn what to do if the top of your favorite grafted fruit tree fails. While you could always graft a new scion onto the rootstock, why not take the opportunity to make more rootstock for several scions? Stool layering is a simple propagation method that can be used with in-ground plants as well as potted plants. Join the Extension Master Gardener℠ Volunteers of Durham County to learn gardening tricks and tips at the Briggs Avenue Community Garden. Sessions will be led by Kat Causey and Sara Smith. Two identical sessions of this class are available. Read more at: https://durham.ces.ncsu.edu/rootstock-101-and-propagation-stool-layering/

Let’s Follow the Bees and Learn About Honey –
April 19, 2022, 7:00 – 8:30 PM

with Myra Halpin, Faculty Emeritus Chemistry Faculty, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and Chatham County Beekeeper. Together we follow the bees to find the flower, communicate to the hive, make the honey and bee bread and then we end with an analysis of honeys. For further information: durhamgardenforum@gmail.com

As always, more learning opportunities can be found here: https://www.trianglegardener.com/garden-events/

April: To Do in the Garden

By Gary Crispell, EMGV

April is upon us.  Good riddance to March.  What a crazy thrill ride that was!  Seventy degrees today and twenty-five tonight and all points in between in the next 4 days.  A little sun, a little rain and not nearly enough of either.  G’bye March.

The saucer magnolia (Magnolia soulangeana) in the front yard was almost pretty for almost a week.  It got nipped as the buds were opening, so it was never awesomely gorgeous.  Then a twenty-one degree overnight brought the whole display to an abrupt end.  Dark brown is an okay color for soil, but not so much for magnolia blossoms.

The Accidental Cottage Garden is a big question mark.  Some of the 250,000 seeds I put out have apparently survived attempted drowning and hypothermia.  Which ones?  Who knows.  It’ll just have to be a surprise.  There is a rumor afoot that part of the lawn might get tilled up and planted with sunflowers for Ukraine.  Just seems like the right thing to do.  And speaking of right things to do…let’s go garden!!


Fertilize warm season grasses (Bermuda grass, zoysia) with a high Nitrogen slow release fertilizer as they are breaking dormancy now and would really like a good hearty breakfast.  Hold off if you have a centipede lawn until late in May.

It is no longer mandatory to cease fertilizing cool season lawns (bluegrass, fescue, rye) after mid-March.  Use a balanced (10-10-10 or equivalent) fertilizer and be judicious.

The window for applying crabgrass preventer may have closed.  The colloquial way of remembering when to do that is sometime between the blooming of forsythia and blooming of dogwoods. 


Besides the lawn (see above), it is appropriate to feed any of the shrubbery that you didn’t get around to last month.  (It’s ok.  Nobody’s judging.)


A big question mark this year.  How optimistic are you?  Are you willing to cover stuff if we get a late frost?  When the overnight temperature quits dipping into the thirties the soil temp will soon enough get warm enough to plant melons, squash, pumpkins, cucumber, and corn from seed.  Save the okra for the end of the month.  You can transplant tomatoes and peppers.  Be sure to plant enough to share with friends and with folks whose thumbs might not be so green and those whose homes might be real portable.  They like fresh produce, too.

Warm season grasses can be planted in April.  Most need to be sodded or plugged/sprigged.  Seeding is either not available or not generally successful.  Check out the NCSU Turffiles web site for all things grass in North Carolina.


Remove any winter damage from trees and shrubs.

Leave spring flowering shrubs like azaleas, lilac (Syringa sps.), forsythia, spiraea, etc. alone until after they have finished blooming.

Prune berry bearing plants such as hollies (Ilex sps.) and pyracantha while they are in bloom so you can judge how much of this year’s berry crop you are removing.

Prune flowering cherry (Prunus sps.) and redbuds (Cercis sps.) as needed.

Check the NCA&T web site to see if your Bradford pear (Pyrus calleriana ‘Bradfordii) is eligible for a bounty replacement.  There is a program to replace cut down Bradfords with free native tree species.

Shoulda happened years ago.


It is open season on azalea lace bugs, boxwood leaf miners, euonymus and tea scales and spider mites.  Spray only as needed preferably with an organic product and ALWAYS read and follow label instructions.

Spray iris beds for borers.

Treat cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) for worms.

Spray squash plants weekly near the base from now until the first of June for borers.

Spray apple and pear trees with streptomycin to control fire blight.  Spray once at bud opening and again at full bloom.  In rainy weather a third application might be necessary. 

Begin weekly fruit tree spray program after bloom petals fall.


There is always mulch.  There are many options and much depends on your aesthetic preferences.  There is pine bark in its many guises and single, double and triple shredded hardwood.  Decorative stone next to the house if you are concerned about termites.  Pine straw (needles) looks great in natural areas.  There is dyed pallet chips (if you must) and wheat straw is good around the vegetable garden.  All of them help retain soil moisture and cut down on the number of weeds. Total weed elimination is a myth.  They are both prolific and tenacious.  Besides pulling them by hand is therapeutic, provided you can get back up afterward.

Here’s a thought.  Let’s just sit outside and revel in nature unveiling herself yet again.  I mean sometimes it might require a cold beverage of some sort and other times in April it might take hot chocolate and a fire pit, but either way it’s a celebration of April in North Carolina.  Happy Spring, y’all. 

*Resources and Further Reading

NC State Extension Organic Lawn Care Guide

NC State Extension TurfFiles

NC Extension Gardener Handbook – Vegetable Gardening

Central North Carolina Planting Calendar for Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs

How to Prune Specific Plants

North Carolina Production Guide for Smaller Orchard Plantings

NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox (find your perfect plant or figure out what that unknown weed is!)

Article’s Short URL: https://wp.me/p2nIr1-28H

Get Ready for Our Annual Plant Sale!

Come join us for our annual Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Association Plant Sale! You’ll find a variety of perennials, vegetables, herbs, trees, shrubs, and houseplants. From natives to traditional passalongs, old time favorites, and some harder to find gems – all procured, propagated, or grown by Extension Master Gardener Volunteers of Durham County, NC.

Plant preview and more information: backyardtreasuresplantsale.org

Please be green and bring your own box.

Learn With Us, March 2022

Bull City Gardener LIVE in-person classes at Briggs Ave. Community garden are back! Click here for the schedule and for registration. March sessions will be held on 3/15 and 3/20. Registration is required.

Durham Garden Forum, 3/15/22: “Pollinator Gardening for the South” with Danesha Seth Carley, Director, NSF Center for Integrated Pest Management, Associate Professor, Horticultural Science. Co-author with Anne Spafford: “Pollinator Gardening for the South: Creating Sustainable Habitats.”  Gardens are beautiful and can be beneficial. Danesha will give us up-to-date scientific research and artful design strategies to outline how each of us can plan, plant and maintain a garden to help pollinators thrive. Registration is required. Contact Durham Garden Forum

Art In Bloom, NC Museum of Art – March 16 – 20, 2022

Additional opportunities for learning:

JC Raulston Arboretum

Sarah P. Duke Gardens

Triangle Gardener