The big tree tour: national champions growing in WMRA's backyard
The Virginia Big Tree Program, housed at Virginia Tech, keeps track of the largest specimens of more than 300 tree species across the state. Its database includes six national champions within our broadcast region. In this first of a two-part report, WMRA's Randi B. Hagi went on a mission to visit each champion and talk to the people who know those trees best.
[sounds of birdsong, lawn mower]
In the Woodbine Cemetery in Harrisonburg, a stately Fraser fir tree rises 96 feet above the graves of people who died in the 1880s. Ivy winds its way up the trunk. Just down the hill sit the tombstones of Confederate soldiers.
Based on a formula that factors in the tree's height, trunk circumference, and the spread of its branches, this is the largest documented Fraser fir in the entire country. Naturally, I wondered – how old is it?
JEREMY HAROLD: We don't want to find out, because you'd have to cut it down and count every ring.
HAGI: To know for sure.
Jeremy Harold is the greenspace manager for the city of Harrisonburg.
HAROLD: If I had to guess, you know, a hundred, 150 years old.
That seems likely, based on the historical records available. The History of Woodbine Cemetery, by J. Nelson Liskey, says the graveyard was chartered in 1850, and the trustees spent those early years "beautifying the grounds, building walls, [and] planting trees."
So, who's keeping track of these giant trees? That job falls to Eric Wiseman, an associate professor at Virginia Tech and coordinator of the Big Tree Program. The standard measuring system combining height, girth, and crown spread was invented by Fred Besley, the first state forester of Maryland.
ERIC WISEMAN: One of his primary intentions for coming up with the Big Tree scoring system was to call attention to … uncontrolled, unmanaged, unregulated logging. But then also, he was hoping that if we found these, what we call large volume trees, and we called attention to them, that it might afford them protection, thereby afford protection to their genes.
One of the most prolific big tree hunters in Virginia – as recognized by his peers – is horticulturalist Byron Carmean, who first nominated that Harrisonburg Fraser fir in 1988. He's from the Chesapeake area, and back in 1983 he saw the Big Tree program featured in an issue of Virginia Forests Magazine. As he flipped through the pages –
BYRON CARMEAN: I would see one and I'm thinking, hmm, I think I might have seen one bigger than that.
That kicked off Carmean's 40-year quest to find big trees. One time, his endeavors caused some inter-state strife with tree enthusiasts in Kansas, when he and fellow tree hunter Gary Williamson discovered a huge American elm while canoeing on the Nottoway River in Southside Virginia. The previous reigning champ was a 99-foot tree in Kansas nicknamed the "Louis Vieux" after the fur trader who once owned the land there.
CARMEAN: Well, our tree beating the one in Kansas just totally upset the apple cart for everybody! … They had a delegation of people from Kansas to come to Virginia to make sure that we weren't fudging somehow.
The struggle for arboreal dominance lasted about two years. An article in the New York Times from 1988 reads, "The reigning king of American elms, a 125-foot behemoth on a farm in Southeast Virginia, is stricken with Dutch elm disease and has only a year to live. … News of the Sebrell elm's demise will not be unwelcome in Kansas."
Sadly, the Virginia elm did die shortly thereafter.
[sounds of birdsong, river flowing]
Another beloved national champion grows in Rockingham County, on the banks of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. It's a majestic Chinkapin oak that stands more than six stories tall. Its tangle of branches stretches to an average wingspan of 113 feet across.
A local family has cared for this tree for at least four generations, as Edward Strickler, Jr. told me via email. It stands near the site of his great grandfather J. A. Davis's mill, which ground various grains and flours, but burned down in 1929. Strickler recalls helping his grandfather clean the fish they pulled in under the oak's foliage. And local legend has it that a young Patsy Cline – who lived in Elkton for a time – visited the tree.
[sounds of birdsong]
In Albemarle County, the national champion Blackhaw, a type of viburnum, stands in a sunny, rolling meadow. The field lies along a little dirt trail that takes you through the 150-acre "Secluded Farm" property.
I met retired forester Jon Rockett there. He and his wife Yvonne volunteer with the Big Tree Program, measuring trees. He said the birdsong there was coming from red-eyed vireos, with backup vocals by chickadees, indigo buntings, and cardinals.
JON ROCKETT: This is a smooth blackhaw … and the interesting thing about that tree is, in its northern range, it's a true shrub, and as you go south, it becomes more tree-like.
This one is 35 feet tall – on the small side for a tree, but gigantic for a shrub.
ROCKETT: The leaf arrangement on this tree – they're opposite each other … but the big thing here is the petiole, notice it's red.
The petiole is the little stalk that attaches the leaf to the twig.
ROCKETT: This is the new fruit, and it's going to turn deep purple. … Its main advantage is that this is an excellent wildlife tree. This is a good food source for a wide variety of wildlife. [dusts off hands]
According to the Peterson Field Guide to eastern and central medicinal plants, it also held value for Indigenous peoples and European settlers, who would make tea from the roots and bark for "painful menses, to prevent miscarriage, [and] relieve spasms after childbirth."
Speaking of childbirth, we'll continue our big tree tour tomorrow with a tree that watched over a Nelson County family who had 10 children – and supported them by selling moonshine out of the holler.