The Strange Case of… Tainted Love and the Treaty Oak

In Austin, Texas, there is a very special tree.  At over 500 years old, this tree was formerly part of a larger group of trees known as the Council Oaks, so named because they were said to be the location of many Native American gatherings during which war and peace were negotiated.  According to legend, the “Father and Founder of Texas” Stephen F. Austin met with local Native American elders under the Council Oaks grove to negotiate Texas’ first boundary treaty.  Because of this history, the most majestic of the Council Oaks was named the Treaty Oak.

Over the years, all but one of the Council Oaks fell victim to neglect, but the Treaty Oak with its massive outstretched branches continued to thrive.  So hearty and healthy was this ancient tree that the American Forestry Association named it “the most perfect specimen of a North American tree.”  The Treaty Oak was inducted into the AFA Hall of Fame.  The tree became a beloved landmark to Texans, and the city of Austin built a park around it to preserve it, aptly named “Treaty Oak Park.”  The Treaty Oak was a huge and glorious old tree.  After all, it was officially the most perfect tree in America.

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Troubling Symptoms

In 1989, arborist for the city of Austin, John Giedraitis, observed that there was a ring of dead grass around the Treaty Oak.  Presuming it was merely a small chemical splash zone from a careless groundskeeper, he didn’t think much of it.  But then he received a phone call from a concerned citizen who told him that she suspected the Treaty Oak might be suffering from Oak wilt, a common but serious disease of old oak trees.  Giedraitis went to observe the tree and quickly determined that while oak wilt was not present, something was seriously wrong with the Treaty Oak.

Foul Play

After investigating a series of natural causes that might be tormenting the tree, a disturbing reality began to take root.  This tree was not suffering from a natural ailment.  Someone had deliberately poisoned the tree… and it was dying.

The poison in question was something called Velpar, a chemical developed by DuPont.  Velpar is an herbicide that is used by pine tree farmers.  When applied to the ground in a field of pine trees, the pines remain unharmed but any other hardwood trees or plants that try to infiltrate will quickly die.  It is a powerful poison and only a small amount could kill an oak tree.  Whomever poisoned the Treaty Oak had dumped over a gallon of the herbicide, enough to kill 100 trees.

Two simultaneous initiatives were immediately launched.  On one hand, it was the desire of every patriot of the Lone Star State to find the culprit of such a senseless and destructive act.  DuPont offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the culprit.  The Texas Forestry Association added $1,000 to that total.  Residents of Austin were furious that someone would have so little regard for something so ancient and tied to their history.  Many called for capital punishment, including the suggestion that the person responsible should be hung from a branch of the Treaty Oak.

Meanwhile, it was vital to do everything possible to save the dying tree.  Many botanists would be required for such a lofty undertaking and that would cost money. Enter Texas billionaire and former Presidential candidate H. Ross Perot.  A proud Texan, Perot issued Giedraitis a blank check to spare no expense on saving this living landmark.  Giedraitis got to work organizing experts from all over the country to exchange ideas about rescuing the tree.  While scientists brainstormed, average citizens did the only things they could to help the healing along.  Many gathered to pray for the tree to stay alive.  Some put cans of chicken soup at the base of the tree along with “Get Well Soon” cards.  When the national media picked up on the Treaty Oak story, cards for the tree started coming in from all over the world.

Tainted Love Spell

Eventually, a suspect for the poisoning emerged.  A man named Paul Cullen was arrested after a tip came in that he’d been seen with gallons of Velpar in his truck that he’d obtained from his job at a farm supply store.

Cullen was a drug addicted ex-con who was known as a loner and an eccentric.  For most of his life, he was considered to be a peculiar man with few friends.  In and out of jail, Cullen had finally settled in Austin and was apparently trying to kick his heroin habit, making regular trips to a methadone clinic.

It is at this clinic where fellow patient Cindy Blanco first noticed that Cullen had Velpar in his truck and alerted authorities.  She also told police that Cullen was in love with a counselor at the methadone clinic.  This counselor did not return Cullen’s affections and was in a relationship with someone else.

Cullen was so distraught, he desperately wanted to rid himself of these tormenting feelings of romance that could never be.  One day, he went to the library and found a book on the black arts.  In the book, he found a spell that was designed to help the occultist break the hold that love had over him.  It involved killing a tree.  A magic circle was to be cast around the tree, and as the tree died, so too would the unrequited love.

The story was so outrageous, police thought it would be impossible to prove.  But they convinced Blanco to speak to Cullen again, this time wearing a wire.  Doing so, she successfully managed to obtain a full confession from the lovelorn Cullen.  He was quickly arrested.  He was charged with felony criminal mischief.  Because he had a previous burglary felony, he faced life in prison.  After a trial, Cullen was sentenced to 9 years in prison.

Treating the Treaty Oak

With the culprit behind bars, focus returned to rescuing the tree. Experts were of the mind that the Treaty Oak was likely beyond saving, but they continued to try.  And they tried everything, including the use of a giant syringe to inject sugar water into the tree.  But the Treaty Oak continued to wane.

As hope began to dwindle that the last of the Council Oaks would survive, efforts shifted to preserving the tree’s legacy.  Cuttings from the tree’s twigs and roots were sent all across Texas in hopes that a new tree might sprout.  Most failed.  Then… one took.  It began to sprout and grow and thrive.  Giedraitis saw an opportunity.

Saved by a Sprout

The newly sprouted offspring was planted right next to the Treaty Oak.  Giedraitis explains that when live oaks are planted next to each other, their roots begin to intermingle, and eventually they fuse together, becoming a single root system.  The hope was that as the new tree grew, it would act as a nurse tree to the Treaty Oak.  And that is exactly what happened.  The baby tree grafted to the mother tree and began to supply nutrients that were desperately needed.

ContinueThe Treaty Oak survived, albeit a bit worse for wear. Only a third of the tree remains alive.  But with the stabilizing force of its offspring, that third of the Treaty Oak is thriving.  In 1997, the Treaty Oak sprouted its first crop of acorns since the vandalism.  The acorns were collected and spread across Texas and beyond, where new trees were planted.  Although the Treaty Oak is a lopsided shadow of its former and grander self, it is seen as a symbol of strength and endurance against evil.

Paul Cullen only served 3 years of his 9 year sentence.  He died in California at only 57 years of age.  Meanwhile, the 500 year old Treaty Oak upon which Cullen cast a spell to ritualistically kill it, is thriving and expected to possibly live another 100 years or more.

Sources used to compile this article:

Treaty Oak – The University of Texas at Austin

Treaty Oak in Austin