These trees grow in CLE: Groups record, track remaining pre-1796 Moses Cleaveland trees

Three years ago, Taylor Lamborn bought a small home in Kamm’s Corners nearly hidden behind a huge white oak.

The oak’s roots were cracking the driveway and tilting the walkway so much, she slipped on a flagstone and injured her hip. A few contractors looked the house over.

This Moses Cleaveland tree is an American Sycamore standing guard over Lake View Cemetery. They all said, “That tree has to go.”

But Lamborn couldn’t bring herself to part with it. “The longer I was here, I started to develop more of an affinity for it,” she says, adding that she especially likes the birds and squirrels who mob it. “They use it as a jungle gym.”

Lamborn finally called some tree experts. She learned that her oak was on a list of the region’s Moses Cleaveland trees—trees believed to predate 1796, when Cleaveland founded the town that bears his modified name.

Lamborn started handing out seedlings to fellow enthusiasts to give the oak’s ancient line new life.

To honor Cleveland’s 225th birthday this year and promote the town’s foliage, the Early Settlers Association of the Western Reserve and Sustainable Cleveland’s Forest City Working Group have been updating a list of the region’s 273 known Moses Cleaveland trees.

These geriatric giants can be about seven feet wide at the trunk, 100 feet high, and 100 feet wide at the crown.

“They are living landmarks,” says Roy Larick, local historian, geologist, and the survey’s leader. He is also a versatile archeologist who has studied Northeast Ohio’s hidden waterways and helped study early hominins, including Indonesia’s famous Java Man.

Moses Cleaveland trees in Cuyahoga and Lake counties were first surveyed by Arthur B. Williams of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in 1946 as part of the city’s 150th birthday celebration. Early Settlers Association volunteers followed up on Williams’ works in the 1970s and the 1980s.

Roy Larick inspects a Moses Cleaveland tree at Lake View CemeteryThe combined 273 trees were erratically documented and marked, yet eight trees cannot be found or accessed today by Larick and his roughly 20 fellow volunteers.

Because of development, disease, climate change, and plain old age, only about 70 trees survive. Of those 70, varieties include tulips, sycamores, beeches, several kinds of oaks, a hickory, and a silver maple.

Additionally, Larick’s group has found about 20 previously overlooked trees that seem to also predate 1796.

Trees are both beautiful and beneficial. According to the Cleveland Tree Plan, the estimated 120,000 trees in Cleveland proper as of 2015 absorb some 308 million gallons of stormwater per year—reducing floodwaters swollen by development and climate change.

They shade us, providing some relief from our rising heat. They absorb carbon dioxide. They filter dust, ash, and other particulates. They provide oxygen, fruit, acorns, nectar, hangers for vines, and shelter for many creatures.

The tree canopy reduces rates of asthma, bronchitis, obesity, diabetes, asthma, and hospital visits.

The tree canopy in Cleveland was reduced by 5% between 2011 and 2021, according to the Cleveland Tree Coalition, with the 2020 Tree Canopy Progress Report showing the Cleveland tree canopy currently at 18% and is on its way to declining to 14.7% by 2040—well below other cities in the region.

A tree tends to die faster in a forest where competition is keen. The Cuyahoga Valley National Park has just one Moses Cleaveland tree left. That tree, a sycamore in Independence, is hollowed by rot but keeps sprouting new leaves and branches.

This Moses Cleaveland tree rises above Lake View Cemetery.The Cleveland Metroparks doesn’t tend, mark, map, or publicize its few remaining Moses Cleaveland trees for fear that tree huggers will approach them and, in doing so, compress the surrounding soil and damage the habitat. Parks leaders care more about the forest than the individual trees.

“There’s a natural succession to the forest,” says Sarah Eysenbach, the Metroparks’ vegetation research coordinator. “Trees die off, and trees come in. We plant trees every single spring and fall.” 

The Moses Cleaveland trees have lasted longer in neighborhoods and in cemeteries, where they get less competition and more care. In cemeteries, the crews that tend the dead also give extra care to these long-living trees, from pruning to bolting.

Lutheran Cemetery in Old Brooklyn has one white oak, and Lake View Cemetery on the city’s eastern edge has seven, including American beech, red oak, white oak, sycamore, and tulip varieties.

Leaders of this year’s survey hope not so much to preserve the Moses Cleaveland trees as to inspire residents to plant suitable new trees and maintain old ones as long as possible. Says Larick, “Let’s keep generating landmarks.”

Friends of Euclid Creek is sponsoring a free talk by Larick on the Moses Cleaveland trees tomorrow, Tuesday, Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Shore Cultural Centre community room, 291 E 222nd St, Euclid. Registration is requested.

For more information and maps of Moses Cleaveland trees click here.

Read more articles by Grant Segall.

Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning journalist who spent 44 years at daily papers, mostly The Plain Dealer. He has freelanced for The Washington Post, Oxford University Press, Time, The Daily Beast, and many other outlets.