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Plant Focus

Quercus stenophylloides is a medium-sized evergreen oak (15–18 m tall) restricted to central and northern Taiwan.

Kyle Spradley's Photographs of the McBaine Bur Oak

Originally published in Oak News & Notes, Vol. 19, No. 2

Columbia, MO is your quintessential college town in the Midwest. Just outside the campus of the University of Missouri you will find eclectic shops, superb dining, art galleries, and outdoor recreation areas that each year a new crop of students call home for a few semesters.

Just down the hill, near the illustrious Missouri River, is one attraction that stands stately in the floodplains and has been attracting visitors for generations. It began growing long before this country was founded. Lewis and Clark likely paddled past it. But it still remains a popular hangout spot and destination for students, bikers, and others to just gaze upon the sheer beauty of this giant.

For nearly 400 years the McBaine Bur Oak, known simply to locals as “The Big Tree,”
has stood stately in the middle of the floodplains of the Missouri River south of Columbia, MO.
This image was taken at sunset in May of 2010 by Kyle Spradley. © Kyle Spradley

Meet the McBaine Bur Oak, or as locals call it, “The Big Tree.” The tree is estimated at 300 to 400 years old and stands only 74 ft/23 m tall, but the champion oak’s prowess comes from its base. With a 294 in/7.5 m trunk circumference and lower branches that are the size of other mature trees in the forest, the oak is a marvel specimen.The canopy spreads to almost 130 ft/40 m and provides an oasis of shade in the middle of flat cropland. On almost any day, you’ll find people hanging out under the tree and taking photos. The grandeur and beauty of the tree is what first beckoned photographer Kyle Spradley to the tree.

The McBaine Oak in October 2012 © Kyle Spradley

“I first came across the tree during my freshman year at Mizzou one afternoon on a bike ride along the nearby Katy Trail,” Kyle says. “I saw the tree in the distance and rode up to it and was immediately amazed by its size. After returning home I came to find out it’s quite popular. The trail crosses the whole state of Missouri, but this tree is far and away the most photographed spot. I had to go back and make some more photos of my own.”

While at Mizzou, Kyle studied photojournalism and forestry, all the while taking photos of the tree. “I just kept coming back,” Kyle says, whose love affair with trees is in part thanks to his father, William, who founded and owns Trees, Forests and Landscapes, Inc. in St. Louis and where Kyle spent his summers working as an arborist and plant health care technician. “I’ve always loved trees, but something about this one was special. It provides a great subject for photos.”

Morning mist softens the winter silhouette of the bur oak © Kyle Spradley

Over the course of almost a decade Kyle photographed the tree, in every season and weather condition. His collection of photographs includes images of spring flowers, summer lightning storms, autumn colors, and freshly fallen winter snow. “Every time I would visit it was a different shooting situation and I would almost always meet a different group of people,” Kyle adds. “It was great to hear the stories of why people drove or rode their bike to the tree. Even people who are not arboreal admirers were amazed by it.”

Today, Kyle lives nearly a thousand miles from the oak, but still treasures the images he created of the tree.

© Kyle Spradley

“Some of my favorite images came from my time with the McBaine Oak,” he adds. “Even though mountains and alpine lakes are my photo subjects now, the beauty of that tree still is awe inspiring. I love seeing the prints I have made hanging in my home every day.”

Kyle’s work not only includes the tree, but other outdoor photography from his home state of Missouri and scenics from across the country. He currently resides in Laramie, WY. and spends his time photographing the rugged landscape of Wyoming and Colorado. Visit his website at www.kspradleyphoto.com for more images and to order prints of the McBaine Bur Oak and other images. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kylespradleyphoto for his latest updates.

© Kyle Spradley
© Kyle Spradley
© Kyle Spradley
© Kyle Spradley
© Kyle Spradley