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Mystery of Herbie's age keeps tree experts busy

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Mystery of Herbie's age keeps tree experts busy

YARMOUTH — A brutal wind and biting cold on Jan. 29 did not keep Whitney Tree Services and the Maine Forest Service from cutting another piece from the stump of Herbie, the once-giant Elm tree.

Herbie was cut down Jan. 19 after losing a 50-year battle against Dutch elm disease. It was the largest American elm in New England at 110 feet tall, with a canopy of 120 feet wide and a diameter of nearly 23 feet at its base.

Long-time tree warden Frank Knight, 101, had estimated Herbie's age to be about 240, but an initial count revealed the tree to be about 212.

On second examination, however, it looks like Knight may have been right. A final determination is expected next week.

In order to get a more accurate count, Peter Lammert of the Maine Forest Service – Herbie's official ring counter – returned to the stump at East Main Street and Yankee Drive and collected another slab for analysis.

After David MacDonald, owner of Whitney Tree, used a 52-inch chain saw to cut through the massive trunk, the sample was brought to the Forest Service garage at Bolton Hill, where it will be dried and sanded.

Lammert and Jan Santerre, senior planner with the Maine Forest Service and Project Canopy, said their preliminary inspection suggests Herbie may have grown in the wild for 10 to 20 years before being transplanted to Route 88.

Santerre said the innermost rings on the trunk are extremely close, suggesting the first years of Herbie's life could have been spent under the canopy of other trees.

"After the initial 10 to 20 years, there looks to be excellent growth," she said. "But we need to sand the trunk and look at it more closely to make an accurate determination."

A crack in the center of the trunk is making it difficult to get an accurate age count, she said, but if the count shows an additional 10 to 20 rings, Herbie will once again be nearly 240 years old.

"We are trying to to act quickly to get a more definitive answer," she said. "Taking too long to determine the age will hold up the production process."

Wood from Herbie will be made into bowls, cutting boards and other items, but it must first be branded, Santerre said. The brand will include Herbie's age.

Money from the sales will be used to support a Tree Trust to purchase disease-resistant elms and protect the trees in Yarmouth from further decay.

"We want to be accurate, precise and move quickly," Santerre said.

She said many scientists, mostly dendroclimatologists who study tree rings to determine climate patterns, and dendrochronologists who specialize in determining tree age from their rings, have contacted Lammert for more information on Herbie. In addition to the University of Maine, Columbia University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have expressed interest.

"In order to be as accurate as possible, I'll let other scientists help count the rings, too," Lammert said. "More eyes and more information will be produce better results."

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net