A Favorite Pin Oak Tree: 19th Century Origins

The Pin Oak tree at the edge of the road in Eliza Howell Park is one of my favorite trees. It stands alone, with enough room for its branches to spread. 

At this time of the year, the leaves are fallen and the branches are bare.


I first started paying close attention to this oak because the birds are attracted to it. Warbling Vireos have nested here twice in recent springs and both Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Blue Jays are all over it in late September and early October, collecting acorns.


Photo by Margaret Weber

This is a quite large – and old – Pin Oak, a species that does not live as long as some other oaks. After having been asked several times how old it is, I decided to try to find the answer. There is no exact method of knowing the age of a living tree, but there is a widely used method of estimating the age.

The steps in estimating tree age are these:

  1. Measure the circumference of the tree at 4 ½ feet from the ground.
  2. Divide the circumference by pi (3.14) to get the diameter.
  3. Multiply the diameter (in inches) by the “growth factor” that has been identified for the specific species, based on how fast growing it is. (Different organizations have published the growth factors for different species.)
  4. The resulting number is the approximate age of the tree, in years.

Pin Oaks are moderately fast growing and have been given a growth factor of 3.0.

It is difficult to measure the circumference of a large tree by oneself so recently, when accompanied by Charon, another Eliza Howell enthusiast, we undertook the measurement.


At 4 ½ feet high, the tree measured exactly 12 feet in diameter (144 inches).

144 divided by 3.14 = 45.86.

45.86 times 3.0 = 137.58

Using this method to estimate age, the tree is about 137 or 138 years old.

137 years ago was 1883. This is just an estimate, but it is probably safe to say that this tree began to grow before the twentieth century, long before this property was donated to Detroit for parkland.

It was already over 100 years old when I started enjoying it, appreciating it in all seasons. On hot summer days, when someone else has not claimed the spot, I park the car in its welcome shade as I take my walk.


Across the road is the prairie flower field and the Pin Oak sometimes makes a lovely background for a flower picture — Joe Pye Weed in this case.


Pin Oak leaves turn late in the Fall, in November in Eliza Howell. The bronze (?) shade is not as striking as the leaves on some other trees, but there is something very attractive about it.


As oak trees go, Pin Oak trees do not have a long lifespan. This one is perhaps older than average. I hope it continues to provide beauty, food, shade, and nesting habitat long after my nature walk days are over.

Big Joe

A number of visitors to Eliza Howell Park this summer made comments after seeing Joe Pye Weed. They had not been familiar with it and wanted to know more. I understand that reaction very well; it is an impressive plant, one that for some time now has been one of my favorite wildflowers.

Joe Pye Weed is a perennial wildflower, one that attracts butterflies, and it has historically been used both medically and as food. And some EHP plants grow to about 8 feet tall! If a “weed” is something undesirable, Joy Pye has been misnamed.

Its blooming season is soon coming to an end, but Joe Pye had a long summer run. One of my favorite photos from the summer is this one of an E. Tiger Swallowtail sipping nectar on a Joe Pye bloom in early August.


There are several Joe Pye plants in the “prairie” section of EHP. I first begin to pay attention to them each year when they start to rise above other plants in late June. The next picture was taken on July 8.


The origin of the name is uncertain, but a common story is that it is named after a Native American healer, “Joe Pye” (or “Jopi”), who used this plant to treat fevers and possibly other conditions (18th century?). Tea made from the plant has been thought to have health benefits and it is listed as an edible plant.

In addition to whatever health and nutritional benefits it can provide, it contributes enormously to nature observation. Two days before the July 14 wildflower walk, the flowers were beginning to open.


Part of the attractiveness of Joe Pye Weed is that it takes its time blooming, opening up slowly and lasting from July to September.

The next picture is from July 24.


Through most of August, I was able to find pollinating insects almost whenever I walked by — for example, on August 4…


…and on August 10.


A purple flower, ironweed (in the middle below between two Joe Pyes), also stands tall, but it doesn’t seem to have quite the presence of Joe Pye Weed. And it has a shorter bloom time.


Joe Pye Weed is a great presence in a wildflower field. It is a large, reliable, insect-attracting, native perennial. It might merit the affectionate nickname of “Big Joe.”