From the staff

A Raleigh red maple survives, and spreads across the Southeast

steve.riley@newsobserver.comNovember 28, 2013 

The red maple called Sport has lost its crown since this photo but now has offspring in several states.

Raleigh is known as the City of Oaks, but this red maple commands your attention.

Its branches spread over Dixie Trail in Raleigh, just north of Wade Avenue, on a rare 3-acre parcel known as Little Lake Hill. In the fall, its blazing color can stop cars.

Several years ago, it stopped mine. Actually, it was the foliage plus a sign advertising that the tree’s offspring were available.

It’s known as “Sport,” so named in the 1930s by Nancy Ferguson, who along with her husband owned the property and planted the tree. Raleigh was a small town then, and Dixie Trail was a dirt street known as Highland Farm Road, according to Bett Padgett, current owner of the property and the tree.

Bett and her husband, Bill, set out in 2001 to spread Sport’s beauty beyond West Raleigh. They turned to Richard Taylor, owner of Taylor’s Wholesale Nursery, to help.

Taylor took a couple hundred cuttings from Sport and nurtured them under mist in a greenhouse. Within two years, he had 5-foot-high trees ready for planting.

The Padgetts sold them, but not for financial gain. They are active in several nonprofits that match their preservation interests, and they donate the money to them: Trees Across Raleigh; the N.C. League of Conservation Voters; Dix306; and the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society. The trees have led to more than $5,500 in donations.

“It’s uncommon for a homeowner like Bett to say, ‘We have a nice tree’ and to do it and to spread it for charitable purposes,” Taylor says.

A few Decembers ago, our family got one for $30. We planted it in the front yard and hoped for growth. My daughters named it Linus.

Today, its top branches reach about 15 feet. It turns a gorgeous deep red in fall, though not exactly the same hue as Sport. Color differences come from varying soil conditions, Taylor says.

Our tree is one of many. In her music room, Bett Padgett fingers through a pile of letters and emails from owners of Sport’s offspring. She says there are at least 220 mini-Sports in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. “People send pictures or bring them by,” she says.

The Padgetts don’t currently have any trees available. But they hope Taylor can produce more by 2015.

Fighting for Sport

Preserving Sport has not been easy. More than 30 years ago, the city at least twice explored a plan to put a sidewalk on the west side of Dixie Trail, a project that threatened the tree. By that time, the old dirt road had become a paved mini-thoroughfare connecting Lake Boone Trail to Wade Avenue and then Hillsborough Street, and Sport stood barely off the street.

According to Padgett, Nancy Ferguson warded off the city, shotgun in hand, intent on blowing out the tires of any vehicle of any crew that threatened her tree. The story of Sport is recounted on Padgett’s Web page, www.bettpadgett.com/Littlelakehill.htm.

It’s difficult to document the account of Ferguson’s defense of the tree; folks at City Hall who have been around long enough to have witnessed this say they remember a flap but not the details.

City Council minutes from 1984 reflect that the tree “has become famous over a period of years due to the desire to keep the tree,” as well as the city’s decision to build the sidewalk across the street from Sport. There’s no mention of any extracurriculars. Nancy Ferguson died in 1986, and her obituary mentioned no incident involving a firearm.

‘Love of something beautiful’

“It was for the love of something beautiful that the entire community enjoyed that Nancy stuck her neck out, and for that, many hundreds of people are grateful,” Padgett says. “Now that we have the clones, even more people will be thankful that Nancy stood up for something she believed so strongly in: preservation.”

To this day, there’s no sidewalk on the west side of Dixie Trail from Churchill Road south to Grant Avenue. The city again has plans to build one, but city Public Works Director Carl Dawson says the project ranks 160 on a list of 200 projects.

“There’s no danger of it happening anytime soon,” Dawson says. He also stresses that the city’s philosophy on sidewalks has shifted. Where the city once would move anything in the way, it now can build around roots or seek easements from property owners to avoid trees.

“We try to be more flexible,” he says.

In the past couple of years, Sport lost a chunk of its crown, leaving a gap in its annual display. It’s starting to show signs of disease. But its legacy will live each fall wherever its fans have planted its clones. And with the city’s new policy, it will live as long as nature allows.

No shotguns will be necessary.

Steve Riley is a senior editor. He can be reached at 919-836-4940 or sriley@newsobserver.com

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