Cultivating More Than Trees at Sag Harbor Schools

Ravenel Ellis, whose mother's landscaping and tree nursery is donating four mature trees to the Sag Harbor School District, hangs out in a ginkgo tree on Tuesday morning. Christine Sampson photo

For now, a majestic eastern white pine tree, a mysterious dawn redwood, a graceful ginkgo and a lively river birch sit firmly rooted at a Bridgehampton tree farm, blending in seamlessly with tall grasses and natural surroundings. They are destined as donations to Sag Harbor Elementary School, where they will serve as more than just shade and ornament on the campus near the playground.

They will serve as the subject of science and history lessons. They’re the stuff art projects are made of. They’ll inspire the imaginations of children who have played under and around trees for generations and generations, said Sag Harbor Superintendent Katy Graves.

Bridgehampton Landscaping and Nursery, owned by the Musnicki family of Sag Harbor, has donated these four trees. They will arrive along with a trio of cherry trees coming from members of the Sag Harbor Tree Fund that will be donated to Pierson Middle-High School. Summerhill Landscaping has volunteered to plant the trees on campus.

“This is really a long-term gift that’s being provided to the school district,” Ms. Graves said. “It’s really thoughtful.”

A history of the eastern white pine, according to the Arbor Day Foundation, recalls the tallest of them were used in colonial days as the masts of British ships, while shorter specimens were used to build houses, barns and businesses. The dawn redwood tree coexisted with the dinosaurs and was thought to be extinct, too, until it was discovered in a remote Chinese province in 1941.

An eastern white pine tree. Christine Sampson photo

According to the Arbor Day Foundation, the ginkgo tree, with its fan-shaped leaves that turn a vivacious yellow in the fall, is called a “living fossil” because its leaves have shown up in 270-million-year-old fossils. The river birch was used in the past to make wooden shoes and ox yokes, and is known to attract wildlife, as a variety of songbirds typically love its seeds.

“I think they offer a lot of possibilities for education, and they’re also very pretty,” said Jill Musnicki, co-owner of Bridgehampton Landscaping and Nursery, and a parent of Sag Harbor students. “It’s kind of cool. Anybody can go out there and can get interesting facts on them. The eastern white pine was a favorite of Thoreau, and that happens to be one of the more useful types of trees in American history for wood. You can sort of pull out what you want to teach, or just sit under the shade. I know the teachers at the school are open to that.”

The needles of a dawn redwood tree, a rare deciduous conifer. Christine Sampson photo

Lilee Fell, a Sag Harbor resident and Bridgehampton florist who is a member of the Sag Harbor Tree Fund, is donating a cherry tree to be planted at Pierson in memory of her mother, Carolyn Fell, who died in 2008.

“She adored Sag Harbor,” Lilee Fell said of her mother. “I also want the tree to bring joy to people and make people happy when they see it. The trees on the Pierson hill are dear to me and I love watching children studying under them. If I could do anything to help Sag Harbor be more beautiful because it’s been such a great community to me, it’s my pleasure.”

The trees are coming at an ideal time, Ms. Graves explained.

“When I first arrived here in Sag Harbor, we lost a number of trees due to disease and insects,” she said. “Because of our climate, that’s one of the things we are up against. We contracted with a local arborist and started working to keep all of our trees so we wouldn’t lose them, but in the mean time we had to fell a number of trees.”

Ginkgo tree leaves. Christine Sampson photo

The donated trees will go a long way to making up for what was lost, she said, and because they won’t come out of the school budget, it’s a gift to the taxpayers, as well.

“We’re so pleased to see what feels like, on every other board agenda, is someone donating to the school,” Ms. Graves said. “We want to continue to encourage that because it provides so much sustainability to the school district. [Donations] have really been picking up in the last two years and we so appreciate it.”

Jackson Dodds, a Sag Harbor resident who has a Southampton-based tree management business, worked on a tree management plan for Sag Harbor. He said doesn’t know of many schools, perhaps just some private colleges, that work this hard to maintain their trees. Most recently, a crimson king maple at the elementary school was dug up and relocated to accommodate the renovation of the multipurpose play court behind the school.

“Now it’s moving into the next stage of replanting and revegetating the property so that it’s not only tree friendly but it’s also educational,” Mr. Dodds said. “It’s going to look like an arboretum over there — each tree is very unique, one to the next.”

The distinctive bark of a river birch tree. Christine Sampson photo