Ask the Steward

Question:The loss of an old friend makes one ponder—Do trees die of old age?

Answer: That is not as simple question as appears on the surface. Certainly trees age, get old, unhealthy and eventually succumb (senesce) and recycle. But is it old age that does them in? I tend to say yes, but with the understanding that old age is largely a secondary cause. Most trees die at a very young age as they compete for space, light, nutrients and other natural elements to establish themselves and fill their growing space. You can only imagine the struggle as 10,000 forest seedlings fight for space that as mature trees only 20-40 trees may occupy. The survivors are young and vigorous and able to fight off threats and damaging agents through the process of compartmentalization—and maybe a bit of luck. However, with age and growth trees fill the space provided and their growing demands are not as easily met. This puts trees under stress, and like aging humans, old trees are less resilient and their systems less able to compartmentalize, fight off disease, insects, drought and other stressors. The challenge for tree owners and forest managers is attaining the unique ‘long vision’ important in managing forests and woodlands. For foresters, specialized education and training, along with years of experience help develop their ability to visualize individual trees AND the forest 10 years from now, 20 years from now and even 50 years down the road. They see the ongoing struggle for survival, the resilient capacities of the forest and the clues present indicating which aging trees are in trouble and which trees are coming on strong, and thereby, formulate informed forest decisions. So—like you and me—old age is certainly a factor, but in the end it is a complex process with multiple contributors rather than old age itself. An amazing journey of life.

Question: Is Indiana really growing timbers for the historic warship, the USS Constitution?

Answer: You bet. And all Hoosiers can be proud of the noble honor that Indiana and Indiana white oaks play in the restoration and preservation of this historic ship. The USS Constitution was built in 1797 and is berthed at Pier One of the former Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. She is the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat.

During the War of 1812 engaging British sailors observed cannon balls bouncing off Constitution’s hull and exclaimed her sides must have been made of iron. This earned Constitution the nickname “Old Ironsides”. In reality, the nearly 24 inches of effective thickness of oak wood along the entire length of the hull could withstand the beating received.

Today, even after 220 years, around 12 percent of Constitution’s wood is original. The ship’s keel, bottom frames, and bottom 13 planks of the hull have never had to be replaced.

White oak trees at NSWS Crane in southern Indiana were first approved to be set aside in November 1973 after ship repairs found white oak of the size needed proved to be difficult to find and very expensive on the private market. Imagine sourcing defect free white oak hull planks, 30 to 40 feet long and six inches thick! Fortunately, we grow that kind of oak right here in Indiana.

Approximately 150 GPS-located mature white oaks have been set aside at Crane for future use for the Constitution, including 35 trees harvested in 2014. Today you can visit a section of the “Constitution Grove” among the 53,000 acre forests at Crane in Martin County.

The Constitution is berthed at Pier One of the former Charlestown Navy Yard, at one end of Boston’s Freedom Trail and is open to the public year round. Proudly inside her is a piece of home grown Indiana hardwoods.

Dan Ernst is an Assistant State Forester with the Indiana Division of Forestry. He oversees the state forests in Indiana and has authored the “Ask the Steward” column for years. Have a question for the column? Email Dan at