Feature photo: Mike overlooking the trees planted along the Missouri River in Pea Ridge nursery.
By Karen Cernich
Growing Quality Trees Has Been the Mission at Pea Ridge Forest in Hermann for Nearly 50 Years
This time of year, it seems like everyone and their brother are visiting Pea Ridge Forest & Christmas Tree Farm near Hermann, Mo. If you want a family-cutting-down-the-tree-together experience, there’s no more iconic option than Pea Ridge. Families have been coming here for generations.
But there’s more to Pea Ridge than Christmas trees. We also know and love it as a great source of Missouri native trees. Pea Ridge is primarily a wholesale nursery, annually selling more than 6,000 balled and burlapped trees, like the ones it donated and planted last fall for our Trees of Treloar project.
“That was a lot of fun,” said Mike Rood, president and in-house arborist at Pea Ridge. “I love the fact that we used all natives and that they are labeling them, allowing people to see what they can find and identify on the Katy Trail.”
Mike, who appreciates any opportunity to educate people about trees, remembers when the old Treloar Bar & Grill was located on the property. “I love that now that it’s a little park full of native trees that we grew right here in the river valley. Today it’s a gathering place again for the community.”
In the special edition of “The Man Who Planted Trees” that Magnificent Missouri printed in the spring, Mike and his friend and fellow tree expert Bill Spradley, of Trees, Forests & Landscapes in Kirkwood, co-wrote an “Afterword” about their work on the Trees of Treloar project. Their goals were to improve a community and to provide education, wildlife habitat, shade for Trail users and beauty for everyone, but perhaps the most important goal was to encourage people everywhere to plant more trees themselves.
It’s hard to put a true price tag on the value that trees add to a home or a landscape, but it’s well beyond the actual purchase and installation price, Mike said, especially when the right trees are selected and planted in the right locations. “Not under a power line,” Mike stressed. “And don’t plant a big oak tree five feet off the foundation.” Trying to instill an understanding of “right tree, right place” is a big part of Pea Ridge’s objective.
Pea Ridge Forest is proud of the diversity of nursery trees that it offers. “We grow more varieties of trees than anybody else in the state, which keeps it fun for us. Every day you’re out, you’re seeing something different,” Mike said.
Becoming A ‘Man Who Plants Trees’
Mike was in kindergarten when his parents, LeRoy and Mary Rood, purchased the property that became Pea Ridge Forest in 1972. There was a Christmas tree farm and a 150-year-old log cabin on the property, and Mike and his two siblings grew up helping care for the trees from Day One. In fact, one of Mike’s earliest memories is trimming Christmas trees so that they would grow in a symmetrical shape.
“We were given either hand shears , or when we got older, we graduated to a 16-inch blade and a 10-inch handle, a knife that you just walk up and shake the tree. The high school boys who worked here, we’d get on their shoulders to reach the tops of the trees,” Mike recalled.
When he was in high school, a friend of the family who owned a nursery taught him how to hand-dig trees.
“He would come out and hand-dig Christmas trees that he would sell at his nursery in O’Fallon. I’d help him dig stuff while he was here, and that was teaching me,” Mike said.
By the time he left for Mizzou, Mike had no intention of coming back to the family business. But he soon realized that his love of trees (and Hermann, Mo.) ran deep. He earned an arborist certification and a degree in forest management, and came home to Pea Ridge.
Today, both Mike and his brother, Scott, run the business with their mom (their dad passed away earlier this year) and about seven other full-time workers. They take pride in continuing the tradition their parents began nearly 50 years ago. “We love doing it. It’s fun to see Mom still involved. She still runs the show; she’s still the boss,” Mike remarked.
The family owns close to 400 acres and leases another 500 along the Missouri River, with around 350 acres in production (both Christmas and nursery trees).
Mike’s Favorites, and One Not-So-Favorite
Asking a tree geek like Mike to name his favorite type of tree is like asking a mother to name a favorite child. He shrugged at first and said his favorite is “all of the balled and burlapped trees.” Then he got a little more specific.
“We grow 17 varieties of red buds, so those are a specialty, and black gum is probably my favorite shade tree,” he said.
But overall, if he had to pick a favorite, Mike said he has always been intrigued by magnolias. He’s particularly excited right now because Pea Ridge is participating in a hybridization program seeking to create varieties with later bloom times, since magnolias typically bloom too early in this region and then get a frost and the flowers disappear, Mike explained. “We will grow the trees, evaluate the color, get more out to others to evaluate and eventually maybe introduce a new (variety),” he said.
For fall color, Mike said his favorite tree is probably the Brandy Wine Maple, although the October Glory Maple (which should really be named the November Glory) is also a good option. Oak trees are always an excellent choice for Missouri, and there are a lot of native options that people are not as familiar with, Mike said: Swamp Chestnut Oak, Cherry Bark Oak, Overcup oak . . . The Missouri Department of Conservation says that “oaks are the most important group of trees in Missouri, both in human and ecosystem value. They dominate most of the forests, woodlands, and savannas in the state, with their very presence essentially defining many of Missouri’s habitat types.”
If there was one tree that Mike is not usually excited to see people planting it’s the Autumn Blaze Maple, mainly because it’s not typically a long-term tree. “It has beautiful fall color and grows super fast, but it has horrible branching, and 25 years down the road it will start splitting,” Mike said.
This season, Pea Ridge Christmas Tree Farm is open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. until dark through Christmas. Cut-your-own tree varieties include primarily white pine, but there are some scotch pines as well. Saws are provided, and there are staff members in the fields for anyone who needs help with cutting. If a fir tree is more your style, you won’t be able to cut one down here, because firs don’t grow (at least very well) in Missouri, but Pea Ridge brings in close to five tractor-trailer loads of pre-cut firs for those customers. There also are fresh roping and greens for sale and a gift shop with a variety of home décor items.
If You Go . . .
Pea Ridge Forest and Christmas Tree Farm is located at 22735 Tree Farm Road, Hermann, Mo. 65041. From St. Louis, head West on Highway 70 to Highway B (exit 188 South). Travel approximately 12 miles to Highway 94. Turn east on 94 and go 1 mile. You will see Pea Ridge Forest sign on the north side of the road.