Monika Maeckle

In an admirable attempt to share the history of one of San Antonio’s most cherished trees, the Famous Trees of Texas program has installed QR code signage in front of the Ben Milam Bald Cypress, the majestic Bald Cypress tree perched on the east bank of the San Antonio River at the Commerce St. bridge near St. Mary’s.  The tree is famous for hosting a sniper who shot Ben Milam, a Texas revolutionary, dead.  The plaque is the first to provide a QR code that directs people to a website with an audio history of the tree.

“Thousands of people pass by that tree without ever knowing how it weaves throughout the historical tapestry of Texas,” said Gretchen Riley, Urban Forest Analyst for the Texas A & M Forest Service.

The QR code presumably addresses this. Riley said plans are underway to place similar signs at other famous trees so that passersby can hear the trees’ stories.

“But the Ben Milam is the first,”  she said, adding that the announcement  generated  inquiries from tree advocates far and wide asking how to implement something similar.  “I know of no other states who have implemented anything like this yet,” she said.

Ben Milam Bald Cypress
Ben Milam Bald Cypress gets first QR code of from the Famous Texas Trees program. –photo by Monika Maeckle Credit: San Antonio Report File Photo

But will anyone use the quirky technology?

The challenges for QR codes are multiple:  1)  You have to own a Smartphone, 2) You must have internet access, 3)  You have to download an app,  and  4)  You have to understand how to use the phone to scan the code.  In the end, most people don’t bother.  According to Forester Research, only 5% of consumers scanned a QR code between May and July of last year.

QR, or  quick response, codes were developed in 1994 as an inventory control tool and are widely derided as a trendy technology embraced by marketers who hope to drive younger audiences to their websites for more info on a product, service, point of  view – or in this case, a historic tree.  They can hold 100 times more information than their predecessors, the bar code.

Ben Milam Bald Cypress Tree Gets QR Code
Ben Milam Bald Cypress Tree Gets QR Code. Will anybody use it? –Photo by Paul Johnson Credit: Courtesy / Paul Johnson

“Honestly, I don’t know anyone within the tech world that uses QR codes.   In the time [it takes] to find the app, I could just type an easy/short URL into my browser,”  said Garrett Heath, a member of Geekdom and cofounder of  Tour Leaf, an app development company that devises tour guide apps.  “It’s pretty cumbersome.”

Only 57 people accessed the QR codes on signs along the San Antonio River in January, said SARA.  --photo by Monika Maeckle
Only 57 people accessed the QR codes on signs along the San Antonio River in January, said SARA. –photo by Monika Maeckle

The San Antonio River Authority added QR codes to its informational signs last year along the Museum and Mission Reach, but most people don’t bother to access them. Only 57 people had used the myriad QR codes posted along the Mission and Museum Reach so far this month.  Riley said no data was available for usage of the Ben Milam QR code.

Which is unfortunate.  Scanning the code on the plaque directs people to an audio file that gives a one-minute history of the tree, read in a captivating voice  by retired long-time State Forester Bruce Miles.

Heath said that many of the museums with whom his company has worked were initially wowed by the perceived “cool factor” of QR codes, despite evidence that no one uses them.

“We built the functionality in [to the apps] to easily create them…. However, as a best practice, we also encourage the museums to put a URL adjacent to the QR code so that users who don’t know what the esoteric symbol means can still gain access to the website.”

Good idea.  We respectfully suggest adding a website address to the plaque in front of the Ben Milam Cypress and any future QR coded trees. For those who don’t want to download a scanning app and  snap the code’s pic with their Smartphone, just type this in to your mobile browser to hear the audio:

Technologies come and go.  We have a strong feeling the Ben Milam Bald Cypress will long outlive the QR code’s appeal.

More on the Ben Milam Bald Cypress:

Heritage Tree:  Story of the Ben Milam Bald Cypress

More on San Antonio’s trees:

San Antonio’s Initiative to Plant One Million Trees by 2020

Read our series on Heritage Trees.

Have a favorite heritage tree?   Send us a photo, a story and we’ll consider it for inclusion to

Monika Maeckle writes about gardening, butterflies, conservation and the Monarch butterfly migration at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  You can reach her at or follow her on Twitter @monikam.

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...