Living Witness in the Galveston Daily News

Living Witness in the Galveston Daily News

Texas trees a ‘Living Witness’ to history


Published May 27, 2012

“Living Witness: Historic Trees of Texas,” by Ralph Yznaga, Texas A&M University Press, 164 pages, $29.95.

Despite stereotypes holding Texas as a land of windswept prairies and open desert, much of Texas is forested. Even the prairies are dotted with trees, and Texas lore is as arboreal as it is plains-based. There are so many famous trees in Texas that someone could write a book.

Ralph Yznaga did just that with “Living Witness: Historic Trees of Texas.” In separate chapters, he tells the tale of 36 famous, historically significant trees in Texas.

Each chapter contains a history of the featured tree that places it in its historic context. A set of pictures illustrating the tree and its surroundings accompanies the text. Finally, instructions on how to find the tree are provided, allowing those interested to view the trees (or their sites).

The photography, done by Yznaga, is spectacular. Those interested in the photography might find them sufficient excuse to acquire “Living Witness.”

The mix of trees that Yznaga presents in “Living Witness” is heavy on oaks. Two pecans, one anaqua (sandpaper tree) and one cypress are the only trees other than oaks presented by Yznaga. Part of this is because of the longevity of oaks, especially as compared to other trees. One of the pecans discussed died immediately before publication, and the anaqua (at Refugio) is in poor health.

It might also explain why only one tree from Galveston — the Borden Oak — was included. For a tree to be a living witness to history, it must both be old and tied to some historical event. Both the 1900 Hurricane and Hurricane Ike resulted in the death of many eligible trees. Other than the recently deceased Lone Star Pecan, the only dead tree Yznaga included was the Center Oak, which marked what was long believed to have been the geographical center of Texas.

The book’s definition of “historical” seems constrained geographically to a section of Central Texas running from Rockport to Fort Worth. Only Galveston’s Borden Oak and the Rio Frio Landmark Oak fall outside that span. Despite the considerable timber and Texas history in East Texas, apparently not one tree in the Piney Woods or The Big Thicket merited the appellation “living witness to history.”

This criticism might be a bit churlish. Books have limits. Trees like League City’s Ghirardi Oak attract homegrown interest; their historic value might be only local. With “Living Witness,” Ralph Yznaga focuses attention on Texas trees worth knowing of in an attractive and fascinating collection.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is