The big tree tour continues: the colossus of Nelson County
The Virginia Big Tree Program keeps track of the largest specimens of more than 300 tree species across the state. In this second of a two-part report, WMRA's Randi B. Hagi continues her tour to visit the national champions in our area.
[utility vehicle driving]
One day in June, I rode with Bennett Saunders up into the blue-green mountains in Nelson County. We passed by an old farmhouse and turned up a dirt path, startling a wild turkey back into the underbrush. We were in search of the largest known Northern white-cedar in the country, tucked away next to an abandoned house.
BENNETT SAUNDERS: They were distant kin of us, anyways, but they lived back here in the hollow …
Saunders grew up in the area, and helps run his family's plant nursery and orchard business.
[walking through underbrush]
SAUNDERS: Well there's your tree. It's a huge tree …
HAGI: Wow, oh my god. Man, pictures really cannot do this justice. Oh man.
SAUNDERS: Look at that one – that one has fallen overtop of the house. But yeah, there's, I reckon this is the one you're looking for.
HAGI: Yeah, no, this is the one! It just keeps going up and up and up.
This tree is so tall, and surrounded by such dense foliage, that you can't see the top of it from the ground. Bark runs up the trunk in pale, cracked canyons.
SAUNDERS: Just, I've never seen a tree like that anywhere in these mountains. I've hunted all of my life in these mountains.
The champion tree is nestled against an old log cabin that was added onto and re-sided as its former inhabitants – the Thompson family – grew. Greg Zell, a retired naturalist, was the last person to measure the tree. It came in at 120 feet in 2015. He noted that Nelson County is pretty far south for this species to grow.
GREG ZELL: Northern white-cedars are, they're normally found in Canada and the northern states, so they're not really rare in Virginia, but they're in a sort of patchy distribution coming down the Appalachians.
He thinks that it grew there naturally, and was not planted by human hands.
ZELL: This tree could have been, you know, 450 to 480 years old. That would make it before Captain John Smith's first trip to Virginia. And I know it's a – pretty sure it's a natural tree, it was growing there by itself, because in the first photo of the old farmhouse, where people were standing around it, that tree was much, much, much older already, at that time, than the house was.
There's a photo from 1932 in the book Mountain Folk: More Oral Histories of the Appalachian People by Lynn Coffey that appears to show this tree growing near a corner of a porch that was later closed in. It was already impressive then – and it's absolutely imposing now, 90 years later.
In that photo, a toddler leans on the bumper of a car in front of the cabin.
WILLIAM "JUNIOR" THOMPSON: I remember the tree being up there. I used to go up there when I was a boy. … I would say it's native.
He's now 94 years old.
THOMPSON: I am William Thompson, Jr. Known to everybody as Junior. Don't call me William because nobody does! [all laugh]
His father, Willy, was the second oldest of 10 children. Junior said his Granny Bessie –
THOMPSON: She was a well-known lady. [laughs]
She made moonshine, and hosted dances at the house. The family grew corn and raised hogs, chickens, and cows.
THOMPSON: That was a way of life, moonshine. … Let me tell you something about it – I have seen lots of moonshine in my life, when I was a boy back in the late 30s. The going price for moonshine when I was a boy – $2 per gallon.
I concluded my big tree tour in Page County, which is home to two national champions.
One is a 30-foot-tall pussy willow – an auspicious height for a species normally considered a shrub. The broad spread of branches overlooks rolling farmland and the distant Blue Ridge Mountains. Judy Moyer very kindly let me photograph the tree after I showed up on her doorstep. She planted the pussy willow – "her baby," as she called it – in 1977.
About 10 miles up the road, I met the South Fork of the Shenandoah River for the second time on my tour. I was looking for the largest documented American bladdernut in the country.
[sound of the river flowing, people swimming and talking in the distance]
Famed big tree hunter Byron Carmean found this specimen while visiting friends.
BYRON CARMEAN: Of course, whenever I go anywhere, I'm scanning around, looking at what's there, and I saw a number of bladdernuts growing – and understand, it's a small species. You know, you don't compare them to oaks or maples. These were the biggest ones I'd ever seen, and I think I measured two on that site.
I spotted them near a boat launch on the river.
HAGI: [on site by the river] You can see the bladders – the namesake, this fruit of the tree that has a little husk around it. Honestly, it looks like a tomatillo more than anything – but you could see where this whole stand of bladdernuts, you know, that fruit can just fall off, and roll down this little hill, plop in the river and then that husk will make it buoyant enough that it can float downstream and set up shop somewhere else!
With the bladdernut marking the end of my tour, I sat at the river's edge, looking out over the mountains, and reflecting on something Greg Zell said about why these trees are so compelling.
ZELL: We're all used to going into museums and looking at dead stuff and reading things on the plaque, but these are living pieces of history, which make them so much different than an old house or an old artifact. They're alive, and think of the things that these trees have, well, metaphorically seen and lived through, for – in some cases – hundreds of years!