In the Garden: Remarkable Trees of Virginia

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By Charles Kidder

I often consider coffee-table books to be a guilty pleasure, a form of eye candy to distract your guest while you top-off his drink. Which is all well and good, of course. But I have only so much space on my coffee table, so I try to resist such books, even as I flip through them at the store. But then, courtesy of a friend, an exceptional one did find its way into my living room.

Remarkable Trees of Virginia by Nancy Ross Hugo and Jeff Kirwan, photography by Robert Llewellyn, (University of Virginia Press, 2008) is the product of a four-year effort by the authors “to document the state’s largest, oldest, most historic, beautiful and beloved trees.”  Their website received over a thousand nominations from across the Commonwealth, necessitating 20,000 miles of travel to actually visit the trees. The authors were then confronted with the unenviable task of whittling down the nominees to roughly one hundred for inclusion in the book.

Unlike many books of this ilk, this is not just about pictures to drool over, although Robert Llewellyn indeed captures the essence and the beauty of the trees. (Not an easy task, as you know if you’ve ever tried photographing trees.) Each tree is accompanied by informative text, not only about the particular specimen, but also about that species in general. For the most part, we see just one example of a species, although the redoubtable and widespread white oak (Quercus alba) actually appears seven times. But how many have even heard of a cherrybark oak (Q. pagoda), with a magnificent specimen growing in Colonial Beach? In addition to appearing in several other chapters, the lordly oaks were also accorded a chapter of their own, Mighty Oaks, the only genus to be accorded such status.

Aside from the above-mentioned oaks, the book is divided into eight other chapters, and I’ll provide one or two examples from each. Minus the pictures, of course. For that, you will have to get the book.

Old Trees  The authors did not set a rigid age limit to meet the criterion of “old,” since some species live much longer than others, but they did require some evidence of old age.  (And large size is not necessarily a good indicator of age.) One of the eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) at Mountain Lake has been dated at 427 years old, for example. The sad news about this species is that most individuals have been killed by the wooly adelgid. The better news is that survivorship among the Mountain Lake population is somewhat higher.

Historic Trees  When dealing with living entities, you can never predict what the future may hold. But when the authors visited Monticello in 2006, a 200-year-old tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) was already in distress. Sadly, the tree and its neighbor on the other side of the house both had to come down shortly afterward. But the trees left a legacy: Local woodworker Frederick Williamson used some of that wood to carve exquisite bowls and other objects.

Champion Trees  This is where size matters, determined by a formula that combines a tree’s height, circumference and crown spread. National champions are the biggest tree of their kind in the whole country, but there are also state champions, and even some localities award champion status. The “Lost Forest” along the Nottoway River in Southampton County is home to “Big Mama,” a twelve foot-diameter bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  Not only the state champion of its species, it also is considered to be the largest tree of any kind in Virginia.

Community Trees  These are in some way given special recognition by their local communities.  This might be a group of trees, such as the avenue of sugar maples (Acer saccharum) planted along Brownsburg Turnpike in Rockbridge County.  More often, it is a single tree, such as the sprawling red mulberry (Morus rubra) that inhabits the Children’s Garden at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Henrico County.  The mulberry’s inviting shape caused debate about letting children climb the tree. The kids won out.

Unique Trees  The vast majority of the remarkable trees are species native to Virginia, but a coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is a notable exception. In 1954, Robert and Allie Baker carried a seedling from California to Suffolk, and it has thrived ever since. It will never achieve the size it would on the Pacific Coast, but it has grown to 90 feet and even withstood hurricane Isabel.

Fine Specimens  Not necessarily the biggest or oldest of their breed, but these trees are arguably the most beautiful. When most people think of birches, they probably imagine the paper birch of the north, or the much-planted river birch. The sweet birch (Betula lenta) is relatively anonymous until you get to know it. Scratch a twig, and you’ll get a whiff of wintergreen. The Floyd County sweet birch growing near Milepost 169 on the Blue Ridge Parkway appeals for its spread of 68 feet, its contorted lichen-covered branches dipping almost to the ground.

Noteworthy Species  Some, like dogwood or redbud, are remarkable for their abundance across Virginia, familiar yet always appreciated. Others, like the gingko (Gingko biloba), are planted here and there across Virginia, never common but always recognizable. In the fall its leaves turn a brilliant yellow, then suddenly drop to the ground. Llewellyn captures this with the Pratt Gingko, planted between the Rotunda and the UVA chapel.

Tree Places  So, where are you likely to find remarkable trees, either singly or perhaps in a collection?  Although the book never gives precise directions or provides a map, many trees will be easy to find, e.g. the white oak at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood. Tracking down the large sassafras in Lee County would not be so easy, however.  But many wonderful trees are growing in accessible public places: Hollywood Cemetery and Maymont in Richmond, college campuses, historic homesites, botanical gardens, etc.  Remarkable Trees of Virginia can be enjoyed not only as a good armchair read, but also as an inspiration to get out and see some of these trees first-hand.