Originally created 11/29/97

Plants part of history



JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- You can buy the shade of which history was made.

Welcome to the Historic Tree Project, which offers plants that are a part of history.

Arlington National Cemetery and the White House have them. Oprah Winfrey is a customer, as is John F. Kennedy Jr., who bought 100 Washington holly trees descended from Mount Vernon when he launched George magazine.

Trees with links to presidents from George Washington to Ronald Reagan; American Revolution sites from Independence Hall to Valley Forge; to remarkable men and women from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Helen Keller to Booker T. Washington; to artists like Frank Lloyd Wright and Washington Irving.

The seeds of these famous trees are collected by park service workers and site curators and end up sprouting in a north Jacksonville greenhouse -- the domain of Jeff Meyer.

"I love planting trees. That's what I do. That is all I have ever done," said Mr. Meyer. What he's also done is some very smart national marketing with free help from Time magazine, the Oak Ridge Boys and the Public Broadcasting Service.

He is building a rapidly growing operation that taps the little thrill of connection that comes from a direct link to a historic event or a famous person or place.

Mr. Meyer grows trees for the Famous and Historic Trees project of American Forests, a Washington, D.C., conservation group that has been promoting tree planting and tree care since 1875.

In 1975 the group published Famous and Historic Trees to celebrate its centenary and found itself increasingly swamped by requests for seedlings it had first offered as part of the anniversary celebration. Mr. Meyer took over the operational side of the Famous and Historic Trees project in 1988 and expanded it.

"I am not in the history business, I am in the tree-planting business," Mr. Meyer said. As part of the project, more than 100,000 young trees with links to famous events and people been bought by school classes, civic and fraternal groups, corporations and individuals across the United States so far, Mr. Meyer said.

Depending on the season and availability, about a hundred different trees are offered for sale through a catalog. Each young tree, 2 feet to 4 feet tall, comes prepared and ready to plant and costs $35. Mr. Meyer has permits to ship trees to all states.

And now comes brand extension time. The Oak Ridge Boys, who have been playing country music since the 1970s, have adopted the project.

"They wrote to their friends asking them to provide seeds from their homes," Mr. Meyer said. Now seeds from the likes of Loretta Lynn (sycamore, sugar maple and dogwood) and Trisha Yearwood (red oak, dogwood and chinquapin oak) end up in the nursery. More than 20 singers are involved in the program. They get no money for doing this, no commissions from sales to fans.

"They want to do something good for people," Mr. Meyer said.

He is now testing the college alumni market -- seedlings from schools such as Vanderbilt University to bring back fond memories to graduates and tempt donors to the endowment fund.