08/24/2012 03:39 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2012

Historic Missouri Tree Threatened By Drought

A Missouri farmer is struggling to quench the thirst of a 350-year-old bur oak that is starting to show potentially lethal signs of distress after weeks of relentless drought.

John Sam Williamson, whose family has farmed the 1,000-acre farm around the tree for six generations, this week hauled more than 1,600 gallons of water to its base. It was the first time in his life that he had to artificially water the imposing oak.

But, then again, Williamson has never lived through a hotter or drier year than 2012, the warmest on record. According to a drought monitor report issued on Thursday, 99.29 percent of Missouri is suffering extreme drought or worse. Boone County, where the historic tree has thrived for centuries, is among the hardest hit. The dry spell there is considered "exceptional," or the most intense as measured by the National Weather Service.

The long drought, which has dried pastures and shriveled crops, was beginning to take its toll on the bur oak near McBaine.

"The leaves are beginning to curl up a little bit, and they have turned kind of brown," Williamson told the Columbia Daily Tribune. "I think it has aborted a lot of the acorns. And the leaves turn upside down to keep from losing moisture."

While many trees are showing the effects of the heat, the bur oak is believed to be the largest of its kind. It is so special that bicyclists go out of their way to see it and, three years ago, tree specialists from nearby Columbia took steps to improve its health.

Now that effort may be in jeopardy.

"The drought of '80 was different," Williamson told the Tribune as he watched the water quickly soak into the tree's roots. "That was hotter, but this one is longer."