In A Nutshell
Once upon a time, the Treaty Oak was considered the finest tree in the United States. It was a truly beautiful plant, a 500-year-old Texas treasure—until someone decided to kill it. The motivation behind this attempted “murder” was incredibly bizarre and involved a twisted story of love, poison, and the occult.
The Whole Bushel
Located in Austin, Texas, the Treaty Oak is a 500-year-old tree that holds a special place in Lone Star history. It was one of 14 trees that served as a meeting spot for Native American tribes, long before European settlers arrived. And according to legend, Stephen F. Austin, the founder of Texas, once signed a treaty with the natives under its branches.
In 1922, the American Forestry Service Association deemed the plant the most perfect tree in America. With such a history, it’s no wonder that the Treaty Oak symbolizes ideals like majesty and beauty. But in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was also associated with things like revenge and black magic.
In 1989, Austin’s city forester, John Giedraitis, realized the legendary Treaty Oak was dying. Concerned, he sent soil samples to the Department of Agriculture, and feds discovered that someone had poisoned the tree with a massive amount of Velpar, a devastating herbicide produced by DuPont.
Hoping to catch the culprit, DuPont offered a $10,000 reward, and the Texas Forestry Association followed suit, putting up $1,000 for information about the crime. Even Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot contributed to the effort, giving Giedraitis a blank check to save the tree.
Naturally, Austin locals were furious, and some even demanded that the crook be hung from the very tree he poisoned. As a third of the oak wasted away, citizens left gifts near its roots, ranging from get-well cards to cans of chicken soup. A psychic even showed up to perform a healing ceremony.
On the more practical side, Giedraitis used Perot’s money to assemble a crack team of botanists in an attempt to save the tree. But at the same time, the Austin Police Department had arrested a man named Paul Cullen. They’d learned that Cullen had easy access to Velpar, courtesy of his job, and was seen with several jugs of the stuff in his truck. The police tricked Cullen into admitting his crime on tape, and he was sentenced to nine years behind bars, although he only served three.
So why would anyone poison such a majestic tree? Well, Cullen was an ex-con, so it’s possible that poisoning the tree was a way to get back at the state for locking him up and forcing him to plant trees while incarcerated. Secondly, Cullen was in love with a counselor at his methadone clinic . . . but the feeling wasn’t mutual. Hoping to get rid of his heartache, Cullen allegedly performed a magic ritual which involved poisoning the tree. He hoped that as the Treaty Oak died, so too would his unrequited love.
Cullen passed away in 2001, but the Treaty Oak is still kicking, although only a third of the plant remains. Scientists took cuttings from the tree and planted them around the state. When one of the cuttings started to grow, they brought it back to Austin and planted it beside the “mother.” Their roots grafted together, and the little tree stabilized the once-majestic Treaty Oak. Unlike Cullen, the tree will probably be around for 100 years or more.
Show Me The Proof
Criminal: Perfect Specimen
Statesman: 25 years later, intrigue of poisoned Treaty Oak remains
NY Times: Man Gets 9 Years in Poisoning of Historic Tree
Texas State Historical Association: Treaty Oak