Sunday, July 23, 2017  

The Magnificent Trees of the Northern Neck

It doesn’t take long when traveling the roads of the Northern Neck to know that trees are of great significance. Logging trucks are an everyday sight on our roads. The foresters are well known. Shadowy green giants loom over our landscape. With the exception of destructive storms, our trees like to grow here.

We use the shade of magnificent trees to lessen the heat of summer. Hammocks are slung between two perfect specimens. Babies marvel at the dancing light of  the sun through branches and learn to crawl, swing and eventually climb their willing branches.

Trees supply wood for housing, toboggans, and fires. They provide fruits, nuts, and shelter for birds, insects, and squirrels. Their visual beauty is an ever-changing venue and an immeasurable pleasure. Look up; there are some really wonderful specimens all around us.

Champion and Big Trees

Trees have fascinated people everywhere. “Central Park Entire” written by Edward Barnard and Ken Chaya documents over 20,000 trees mapped over years. This entailed walking for hundreds of miles through this inner city park.

So how do we tell if a tree is a champion?

Champion trees are the largest specimen of that species. In general, forest trees will be taller and thinner and have a smaller crown. There is a standard system of measurement and scoring that is used. Three values are added together: the circumference or girth (in inches), height in feet and 25% of the average crown spread in feet. Circumference is normally measured at breast height or 4 1/2 foot above ground.

Big and champion trees are recorded and listed by varying groups. A “Big Tree Project” has been conducted by Virginia Tech whose campus in Blacksburg is home to a breath-taking array of trees.

The “Big Tree Project” conducted at Mount Vernon was an effort to duplicate large trees that would have been there at the time of Washington’s life (18th Century). Sixty-five trees, some as large as 40 foot in height and weighing an estimated 4 tons were selected. Dean Norton, Mount Vernon’s horticulturist, visited Halka Nursery in Englishtown,
N. J. with a donor, to select elm, maple, tulip poplar, oak, beech and American hollies of mature size to fit into the landscape of this historical property.

The Remarkable Tree Project was conducted by outdoor author and lecturer, Nancy Ross Hugo, and Virginia Tech forestry professor and extension specialist, Jeffrey Kirwan. This book documents “Remarkable Trees” in Virginia. With research conducted over a period of four years, the resulting book lists trees of “age, size, beauty, uniqueness, connection to the community or historical and cultural significance.” I have been told that Ms. Hugo’s goal is to have her picture taken with each of these “remarkable trees” in her lifetime. Virginia’s top 100 trees were listed and published in 2008. The research process involved children from 4H, scouting
and schools.

The National Register of Big Trees has been published continuously since 1940 and documents the biggest of 822 species of trees. Virginia has the distinction of being ranked 5th in the nation for the most big trees by species
Right here on the Northern Neck of Virginia there are some really outstanding trees. While we cannot name all these great trees in this one article, we would love to give you some wonderful examples. If you want to find more, Google the Virginia Big Tree Database!

Northumberland County

In Heathsville there is a remnant of the Chicocoan Oak. This beauty that traces back to the early days of native Indians met its demise. A mammoth slice of the trunk was dried, coated in paraffin and is preserved and on display in the Transportation Building behind Rice’s Hotel. Check out the rings and see what this tree saw in its lifetime. A few of the acorns from this tree were started and planted by Henry Bashore and are happily growing behind the building housing the Historical Society near the hotel.
Speaking of historic, make sure you visit the sycamore growing at Richard Lee’s burial spot near Cobbs Hall off of Cobb’s Hall Road in Northumberland. Richard Lee and members of his family  are buried in this quiet place. The  impressive sycamore keeps watch  through the centuries on gentle  vinca-covered forest land. Bricks from Stratford Hall, birthplace of Richard’s famous relative Robert E. Lee, help make up the surrounding wall.

Westmoreland County

Westmoreland State Park is home to a brand new visitor center. Next to the center shading the picnic tables loams a multi-trunked tulip poplar (liriodendron tulipifera). According to the forest  ranger, it is actually five trees with intertwining trunks.

Westmoreland County is home to other amazing trees. Look behind the newly refurbished Montross Inn and see the Tree of Heaven (ailanthus altissima). With a circumference of 244 inches, a height of 55 feet and a crown of 48 feet, it is a National Champion. The comment on  the database was that, “this tree is hollow but the growth above appears healthy.”

George Washington National Memorial Birthplace is home to many black walnuts. Rijk Morawe, Natural and Cultural Resources Program Manager, told me their real jewel is a hackberry (Celtis occidentalis). Located behind the memorial birthplace, it is believed to be about 200 years old and 50-75 feet in height.

Many other trees of note can be found in this county. However, many of these are on private property and the owners have wished not to share their locations.

There is a wonderful black walnut (Juglans nigra) with a circumference of 244 inches, a height of 104 feet and a crown of 55 feet as measured in 2007. A cherrybark oak (Quercus pagoda) with a circumference of 315 inches, a height of 102 feet and a crown of 125 feet is located in Colonial Beach.

Westmoreland County is also the home of a new state champion. It is an incense-cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) with a circumference of 192 inches, a height of 58 feet and a crown of 39 feet. There is southern red oak (Quercus falcate) with an amazing circumference of 230 inches, a height of 84 feet, and a crown of 126 feet. An English walnut (Juglans regia), a post oak, a shellbark hickory and a Virginia pine all of exceptional size grow happily in this county. (Please refer to the qualifications for champion information above for measurement clarification.) There must be something in the water!!

Lancaster County
Chesapeake Academy in Irvington has a giant on their campus.
A live oak (quercus phelos) with an amazing girth of 7.5 feet
is available for all to see. Its age is undetermined but is remarkable for the size of its lower limbs. These limbs which are only 10 foot off the ground are larger than most tree trunks. It is believed to be one of the 5 largest trees in Virginia. This tree has seen many generations proceed through the hallways of this school. It is lovingly watched over and tended by arborists for all the concerns of its increasing years.

A giant tulip poplar, known locally as “The Tree” grows outside the town of Lively on private land that has been in a family since the Civil War. It is said that it has survived by being at the edge of forested land.

Venture to the charming town of Weems. As the road proceeds down next to Campbell Presbyterian Church, notice the plaque marking the stump of an old cedar. That stump is the remnant of a cedar-lined road that once led to Robert “King” Carter’s home Corrotomman. Robert “King” Carter was known for being the visionary behind the beginnings of Historic Christ Church nearby.

 In Weems, there is a willow oak (quercus phellos) with a circumference of 284 inches, a height of 122 feet and a crown of 113 feet. This is happily growing at a private residence on School Street
See all these miracles. Touch their bark in wonder. Hug them if you are inclined. And remember, as the poet said, “Only God can make a tree,
probably because it is so hard to  figure out how to get the bark on.”
- Woody Allen.