Destination Tree

A Pilgrim’s Guide to Tree Travel.


Robert Llewellyn, Kyle LaFerriere

Live oaks (Quercus virginiana), Hampton: Sculpted by wind and weather, this live oak at Fort Monroe National Monument has lived through centuries of countless storms on this historic peninsula, where it has also witnessed the comings and goings of American Indians, refugee slaves, soldiers (including Lee), poets (including Poe), and presidents (including Lincoln). On the campus of Hampton University is the Emancipation Oak (right), under which the Emancipation Proclamation was read to slaves and free black men and women in 1863. The sheltered space under the tree’s massive canopy invites quiet reflection. Through it all, the trees have soldiered on.

Wanna’ go see a tree?”

“Sure. Will people be involved?” (Translation: “Do I need to change clothes?”)

“No.”

So we’re off, my husband and I, to see a tree in Northside Richmond recommended by a friend. This trip, which included a stop at the grocery store, lasted little more than two hours, and in that time, I revisited a section of Richmond I hadn’t seen in decades, explored a neighborhood I’d never been to before, and walked an alleyway as interesting and revealing as anything on Parts Unknown. And the tree, oh, the tree.

“That’s a big ’un,” said John, in his usual understated way. 

I’d been told the tree was probably the new state champion hackberry (it’s not), that Lewis Ginter insisted it be saved when he laid out the Ginter Park neighborhood (probably not), and that the trolley line from Richmond to Ashland had swerved to avoid it (definitely not). 

Still, this was a tree that clearly owned the neighborhood long before these houses were built in the early 1900s. I can’t describe trees (more on that later), so I resort to statistics: with a 96-foot crown spread, this hackberry is 80 feet tall with a trunk over 19- feet in circumference. The Super Can trash bin next to it looked pint-sized in comparison. What a surprise and thrill to see such a majestic living thing growing in such an unassuming spot. Both John and I zeroed in on its bark, which was not the typical warty bark of a merely mature hackberry; this was ancient hackberry bark, with smooth, peeling, vertical patches and corky burls the size of dinner plates. Equally amazing was the way the tree’s massive limbs surrounded electrical lines running down the alleyway. They threaded the tree like a needle, with absolutely no damage to the tree’s shape. Someone, very long ago, decided to let the wires yield to the tree instead of the other way around, and the result was impressive. 

Traveling to see trees never disappoints. Some advantages of adding a tree visit to your travel plans (or, better, for making trees the focus of a trip) include these: trees don’t move, don’t close on Mondays, and are waiting for you no matter how late you are or how horrid the weather. They don’t care how old or rich or thin you are, and they certainly don’t care what you’re wearing. 

To know a tree, you do, though, need to get out of the car and into its presence, close up. The worst thing you can do is look at a picture of a tree and think you’ve seen it. I call the camera “the great tree-diminishing machine,” because even the best photographers can’t capture the sense-around experience of a living, breathing tree. You’ve got to experience its size and strength in comparison to your own (no contest), witness the sun at 3:00 p.m. in its crown, hear the rattle or rustle or patter of wind in its leaves (each species has a different sound), feel the temperature drop in its shade, share the air with its resident birds.  

Words, I confess, are even worse than photos at capturing trees. Poets get it right occasionally, but, in general, words are about as good at capturing trees as they are at capturing stars, which Primo Levi once compared to “trying to plow with a feather.” Still, I plow on. 

Kyle LaFerriere, Robert Llewellyn

Water Tupelo (Nyssa aquatica), Courtland: Why go to Disney World when you can go to Cypress Bridge Swamp Natural Preserve, in Southampton County, where phantasmagorical trees like this water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) grow? True, there are no regularly scheduled tours (and no official public access points), and you’ll probably get your boots wet, but if water levels on the Nottoway River are low, you can walk in. If high (above six feet at Sebrell), you’ll need a canoe. Either way, it’s a trek, but worth the effort. Here, in addition to picturesque old water tupelos, grow the state’s oldest trees—bald cypress trees estimated to be 700 to 1,000 years old.

When To Go

There is no bad time to visit a tree. In fact, I particularly enjoy visiting trees in bad weather, because 1) no one else is there, 2) my other favorite activity, gardening, is out, and 3) I get to experience, and therefore understand better, what trees (which can’t retreat with a good book) endure. 

One of my all-time favorite tree visits happened during a February ice storm, when I went to visit a venerable old Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) in Louisa. After the publication of Remarkable Trees of Virginia, I got lots of letters of invitation to see trees, so many that I filed them by county knowing I’d not live long enough to see them all. But now and then, knowing I’d be in the area, I’d pull out one of these golden invitations and show up. 

It took me 20 years to answer Mildred Millholland’s invitation to see her Osage orange, and by then Mrs. Millholland was in her 90s. In the midst of a storm—and a pandemic—I didn’t really expect Mrs. Millholland to come outside the day I visited, but not only did she come outside, she traipsed with me around the tree as snow and ice piled up around the tree’s massive trunk and buttressing roots. She described the tree’s long connection to her family, and I saw something I could have seen only in this terrible, awful, very bad weather: ice and snow settling into the tree’s deeply fissured bark, highlighting its ridges and depressions like mountains and valleys. And I’ve never seen the orange undertones of Osage bark quite as electric as they were on that deeply gray day. The weather turned my tree trip into a singular experience, but it was business as usual for the tree. 

Rain is great for tree travel, too: the bark so dark, the moist air so sweet on your lungs. Like ice, rain also cuts down on the number of distracting fellow visitors, but, better, it highlights some of a tree’s engineering. You may have never heard the terms “branchflow” and “stemflow,” but spend some time with trees in a downpour and you’ll witness vertical rivers rushing down the trunk (stemflow) and drips of water falling from the undersides of branches (branchflow). Both feed not just the trees’ roots but microorganisms in the soil below. 

Colors are richer on a rainy day, too, which reminds me to say: fall is not the only time to look for tree color. It drives me mad to hear of people waiting, waiting for the narrow two-week period when fall leaf color is supposedly at its peak and tree viewing is encouraged (from the window of a car). What about January, when tulip poplar cones flash like reflectors in the tops of the trees? What about December, when a blue-berried red cedar can stop traffic? What about July when the first tupelo leaf turns red, February when red maple flowers glow, March when parchment-colored beech leaves hang, translucent, in horizontal lines? Yes, Virginia trees have gorgeous fall color, but so do our spring, summer, and winter trees.

Kyle LaFerriere, Robert Llewellyn

Higan cherry (Prunus subhirtella), Yorktown: As with all travel, what you go looking for is not always what you find. Photographer Robert Llewellyn and I were on the trail of a large redbud in Yorktown when we heard this tree buzzing in the distance. We never did find the redbud we were looking for, but this Higan cherry at the Historic Moore House exceeded any expectations I might have had for the redbud. Not only was it perfectly formed and in full flower, it was being mobbed by bees and even the slightest breeze animated the air with its petals.

Where To Go

Anywhere a tree grows, a tree lover who’s a good observer can learn something and enjoy the process—and the backyard is as good a place to observe trees as any. But routines are sometimes blinding, and breaking the habit of not seeing something familiar, like a backyard tree, is hard. Hence, travel. 

Some of the best places to see fine old trees are cemeteries, college campuses, arboreta, and botanical gardens. Virginia is full of them, and most of them are open to the public. Both Maymont in the City of Richmond and the State Arboretum in Boyce are free, open every day of the year, and full of fine trees.

Another way to find trees to visit is to explore the Virginia Big Tree Program website, where champion and near-champion trees of over 300 species are listed. Using the Advanced Search function, you can search that database by county, and the website will provide you a picture of the tree, a description of the tree, and its location (if it grows in a public place or its owner is willing to share its location). Loudoun County even has its own Big Tree Registry website, with the locations of its champion trees marked.

One caveat: not every champion tree is a beauty. The way champion trees are measured and compared, a tree with a wide girth can outscore a healthier, handsomer one, so champion does not necessarily mean “storybook beauty.” Luckily, if you’re on the trail of a big tree, it doesn’t really matter what you find at the end. You’ll be training your eyes to see trees in the landscape, so you’ll find something.

Just asking around is another way to locate trees worthy of a pilgrimage. I, a tree fanatic, never stop being shocked by the remarkable trees close to me that I’m still discovering. Sometimes I think, “It couldn’t be that good, because someone would have told me about it before” and then, lo and behold, it’s better. 

Kyle LaFerriere, Robert Llewellyn

Cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata), Colonial Heights: If there’s a more magnificent tree in a more accessible but unheralded public space in Virginia, I haven’t seen it. This tree is too easy to get to not to be visited more. Just get off I-95 at the Colonial Heights exit (between Richmond and Petersburg) and make your way past the waffle, burger, and car loan places to get yourself to the tiny Violet Bank Museum where you’ll encounter the plant equivalent of a whale. This tree, growing way outside of its western Virginia natural range, was probably not, as a sign near the tree suggests, a gift to the owner of Violet Bank from Thomas Jefferson in 1718, but it may have been planted from a slip brought back from White Sulphur Springs in 1833.

Why Go

A narrator on a recent radio program was espousing the virtues of awe. Evidently awe is good for your health (and probably for your relationships and your hair). I don’t disagree, but I question the idea that someone can go out, on cue, for a dose of awe. More reasonable might be the more modest goal of heading outside, into the presence of trees centuries older than you are, for perspective and a sense of humility. 

A few things that can’t be repeated often enough: trees evolved 397 million years before human beings. They are smart and they are enduring. Some local ones live five to ten times as long as people do. Some more distant ones live 50 times as long. (The oldest bristlecone pine is over 5,000 years old.)

Fifty years ago, when he realized I was a tree fanatic and traveling the world to see trees, Dr. Jay Stipes, plant pathologist and tree guru at Virginia Tech, insisted my tree education would be incomplete until I visited the bristlecone pines (Pinus aristata) in the White Mountains of California. He said go in July, which I did, and, as he predicted, the snows parted, letting my husband and me in to see trees that germinated before the pyramids were built. That trip turned me from a tree lover into a tree worshiper.  

Worship: “a feeling of adoration and reverence.” Not every tree inspires that feeling in me, but trees are my most reliable source of such.  

And so, I travel to see trees. 

Kyle LaFerriere, Robert Llewellyn

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), Boyce: Virginia blooms in April, and nowhere better than on Dogwood Lane at the State Arboretum of Virginia in Clarke County. One of the state’s best kept secrets, the Arboretum sits in the midst of UVA’s 712-acre Blandy Experimental Farm, where visitors will find, among other tree treasures, 30 state-champion trees. There is no bad day to visit the Arboretum (which is open, free, 365 days a year), but another popular time to visit is late fall when the Arboretum’s 300-tree Ginkgo Grove is changing from green to gold.

The Tree Amigos 

These three search for champion trees the modern way.

Retired horticulture teacher Byron Carmean and retired park ranger Gary Williamson were already Virginia’s preeminent big tree hunters when they teamed up with nuclear pipefitter Dylan Kania, 25, who introduced them to new tools, like satellite imagery. Kania knew Carmean by reputation and knew they shared many of the same interests: archaeology, natural history, big trees. So when Kania, also an IT whiz, started spotting what he thought might be unusually large trees using Google Earth, he contacted Carmean, who was impressed.  

“He can sit on his couch and find trees,” says Carmean. 

Now dubbed “The Tree Amigos,” Carmean, Williamson, and Kania spend days in the field tracking down trees Kania spots first using Google Earth, Eagle View, or Google Street View. They also search for champion trees the old-fashioned way: by exploring historic properties and out-of-the-way places where unusually large trees tend to grow. Together, they have found so many new champion or near-champion trees that Virginia’s Big Tree Program coordinator, Dr. Eric Wiseman, has trouble keeping up with their nominations. 

To be named champions, trees of the same species are compared using a score that combines measures of their height, crown spread, and girth. Dr. Wiseman at Virginia Tech keeps Virginia’s records and posts them on the Virginia Big Trees website: BigTree.Cnre.VT.edu. The University of Tennessee maintains records for national champs. Big tree hunters look not just for the largest living examples of large tree species, like sycamore and tulip poplar, but for the largest living examples of small trees, like dogwood and redbud. 

How do The Tree Amigos gain access to the trees they want to measure? “We just knock on the door and hope for the best,” says Carmean. Seldom are they turned away.

“They appeared on my doorstep and said, ‘We’re big tree hunters; we want to measure your tree,’” says Edna Johnston, who lives on Moss Side Avenue in Richmond’s Northside, where an enormous hackberry grows in the alley. “We were thrilled, because we love our house, and I always say, ‘the tree is our favorite part of the house.’” 

According to Kania, not only has technology for assisting in tree searches gotten better, but he’s gotten better at using it. “It’s a skill I’ve honed,” he says. “I can’t see the whole tree, but I can see features of it.” What he looks for are things like branching structure, size of the tree crown, foliage texture and color, and sometimes flowering, to help identify the species. “Even just a large shadow cast, I can associate with a very large tree.”

“One thing leads to another,” says Carmean, who, with Williamson and Kania, often enters a landscape looking for one thing and winds up finding another. Images on Google Earth led Carmean and Kania to enormous Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) trees on a Prince George estate, but while there a groundskeeper insisted, “I know where some bigger ones are.” Sure enough, she led them to a nearby property with an abandoned homesite where larger Osage oranges grew. Final determination pending, but Carmean thinks one of them will rank among the top five largest Osage oranges in Virginia.

Kyle LaFerriere Kyle LaFerriere Photography

3 amigos

The Tree Amigos for Virginia Living on November 2, 2023.

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