Wild Ideas: On the big-tree hunt

Impressive in stature and beauty, even without its leaves, this chinkapin oak in Luray is still short of being the state champion for the species.Pam Owen
Impressive in stature and beauty, even without its leaves, this chinkapin oak in Luray is still short of being the state champion for the species.

The Piedmont Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society (VNPS) hosts a nature walk the second Sunday of each month. This month, I joined them on a hunt for “Big Trees” in Page County.

Trees earn their “Big Tree” status by meeting criteria under the Virginia Big Trees Program. The goal of the program is “to increase the care and appreciation for trees,” according to its website, which, along with the program’s database,  is maintained by Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation.

Trees nominated for Big Tree status — native or nonnative — are ranked on the basis of a formula that incorporates height, crown spread and circumference (at 4.5 feet from the ground). The Virginia database lists the top five trees for each species, and the website has links to both the Virginia and National Big Tree Program databases.

The Virginia database can be searched by a tree species’ common or Latin name, or by county or city. Each Big Tree has its own page on the website, which gives information about the tree, including its location, its measurements, and whether it’s a champion — the largest recorded in Virginia or nationally for its species. It also includes photos and a link to the page for that species on Tech’s vTree dendrology website.

Thirteen big trees are listed for Page County. Six are state champions; none are national champs. Although many of the trees are on private land, the VNPS tour included only trees on public land and, because the trees were spread around the county, the tour also involved driving. Virginia master naturalist and master gardener Richard Stromberg, who also edits the Piedmont Chapter’s newsletter, led the tour.

Attendees of a tour of Virginia Big Trees in Page County, hosted by the Piedmont Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society, examine a state-champion American bladdernut along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.Pam Owen
Attendees of a tour of Virginia Big Trees in Page County, hosted by the Piedmont Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society, examine a state-champion American bladdernut along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.

The tour started at Skyland, in Shenandoah National Park, with two fanleaf hawthorns (Crataegus flabellate). While the name of the program may bring to mind towering oaks, the focus is on the biggest trees for the species, not overall — and some species, including the fanleaf hawthorn, are far from towering.

The first one we visited was only 25 feet tall, scoring 60 points overall for its species. With gnarled and broken branches, and covered in lichen, it looked old and rather sad, although it did sport some bright-red berries. The other hawthorn, with a score of 53, looked younger and healthier, with lots of berries.

Next on the tour was a nonnative blue spruce (Picea pungens) in a garden, now grown wild, that dates back to when Skyland was a private resort. While a lot of the tree’s lower branches were bare, the crown was still green. The trunk, with a circumference of 79 inches, was impressive, but, at 81 feet tall and with a score of 168, the spruce is still a bit short of the state champion (in Montgomery County), with a score of 175.

Leaving the park, we went to Luray to see a tree next to the Page County Government Office Building that truly was towering — a chinkapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii). With a score of 374 points, it is 96 feet tall and has a crown spread of 96 feet and a trunk circumference of a whopping 248 inches (diameter of 79 inches). After my camera’s battery died, I struggled to get the enormous tree into frame on my smartphone. Even bare of leaves, this oak was a joy to behold, and those of us on the walk spent a lot of time staring up at its spectacular crown and admiring its huge, gnarled trunk.

In an article about the tour that Richard wrote for the Piedmont Chapter’s winter issue, he notes that this oak is featured in Remarkable Trees of Virginia, by Nancy Ross Hugo and Jeff Kirwan, and its situation has improved since that photo was taken: “The shed in front of the tree has been removed and the English Ivy has been taken off the tree.” When the building was planned, the architect adjusted its design to accommodate the tree. Although impressive, this is not the state champion chinkapin oak; that honor goes to a tree in Rockingham County, with a score of 387 points.

For the last trees on the tour, we drove eight miles northwest, crossing the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. On its northern shore, bordering George Washington National Forest, we found the only state champions on the tour: two American bladdernuts (Staphylea trifolia). As Richard explained to me in a follow-up email, although usually only one tree per species is declared a champion, if more than one is close in points, as was the case with the bladdernuts, the state and national programs declare them to be “co-champions.”

Like the hawthorns, this species was not impressive in size. With an overall score of 41, the larger of the two was only 22 feet tall, with a crown spread of 17 feet and a circumference of 15 inches (diameter of five inches), which includes more than one trunk coming out of the same root.

Although the American bladdernut tree is not impressive in size, it produces a remarkable nut, for which it is named.Pam Owen
Although the American bladdernut tree is not impressive in size, it produces a remarkable nut, for which it is named.

Despite their small size bladdernuts have lovely trunks, similar to birches, but what really stands out is the species’ remarkable nut: a 1.5-inch, three-lobed, “papery capsule that looks inflated,” according to vTree. Inside are several small, hard brown seeds. When the seeds mature in September, they rattle around in the air-filled capsule.

Rappahannock County has only two trees listed in the Virginia Big Trees database — neither a champion. Both are on the property of Bruce and Susan Jones. One is an alternate-leaf dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). A mere 15 feet tall, its overall score is 40 points; the state champion, in Arlington County, has a score of 55. The other is a black oak (Quercus velutina). At 101 feet tall and scoring 363 points, it ranks only fifth out of 11 in the database. The state champion, in Prince George County, has a score of 418 points.

There may be more Big Trees in Rappahannock, just not yet nominated — or perhaps not yet even discovered. According to the Virginia Big Tree Program website, anyone can nominate a tree and “volunteers are encouraged to search for, nominate and update current trees.”

© 2015 Pam Owen

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