Northern Virginia Has Some Champion Trees, But Threats Abound
Local residents are encouraged to nominate champion trees
“We are very rich in big trees in Northern Virginia,” Greg Zell told the Friends of Dyke Marsh on March 7, but the area is “a tough place for a tree to live.” Zell, Arlington County’s Natural Resource Specialist, led 65 attendees on a visual tour of the champion trees of the region at the group’s winter meeting, cosponsored by the American Horticulture Society and held at the Huntley Meadows Park Visitor Center.
In Virginia’s champion tree program, Fairfax County has 68 trees; Alexandria has 18, and Arlington has 40.
“Size counts,” he stressed, explaining that there are national, state, and local champion tree programs. Champion trees are the biggest of their species determined by factoring in the tree’s circumference at breast height, the crown spread and the height.
His visual tour highlighted some examples:
- The American Horticulture Society’s national headquarters at River Farm in Mount Vernon is home to the national champion osage orange tree, 28 feet in circumference and probably 200 years old. It is a male and does not produce fruit, added AHS’s Jane Underwood. Zell offered a historic fact: Meriwether Lewis brought osage orange tree fruit to President Thomas Jefferson from Lewis’s transcontinental expedition with William Clark.
- A white ash at Mount Vernon estate, with an almost 18-foot circumference is the fourth largest in Virginia and was likely planted by George Washington in 1785, one of the few trees left that the first U.S. President planted. Washington was a “tree aficionado,” said Zell.
- Alexandria’s Christ Church Presbyterian cemetery has a state champion star magnolia.
- The Annandale area has an American plum tree behind an Amoco station that was the national champion from 2005 to 2008.
- Arlington has a 250-year-old chestnut oak, the third largest in the state, almost 16 feet in circumference.
- At Arlington’s Civil War-era Fort C.F. Smith, there’s a county champion tulip poplar that was probably there in the 1860s. The poplar is also the largest tree in Arlington. Zell speculated that the area was clearcut so cannons could be unobstructed, but the tree was likely left to shade the troops.
- Arlington National Cemetery is “a beautiful place to take a tree walk,” he suggested. Several state champions thrive there: a pin oak, a princess tree and a mockernut hickory that is 250 years old. The cemetery also has what Zell dubbed a “spooky state champion tree.” A big burl in the yellowwood tree resembles the head of a World War II soldier wearing a helmet, peering over World War II graves.
Trees are important, Zell asserted. Among other reasons, they clean the air and water, stem stormwater runoff, sequester carbon, and increase home values from 20 to 30 percent.
He cited as threats to trees development, forest fragmentation, ever-expanding impervious surfaces, disease and invasive plants. John Perry, who lives in Belle Haven, complained that some people move into Mount Vernon’s established neighborhoods, buy homes because of the mature trees and then cut them down, labeling it a “small epidemic.” There are few legal protections for trees on private property, Zell responded.
Zell concluded with a quote from Lucy Larcom: “He who plants a tree, plants hope.”
How to Nominate a Tree
Anyone can nominate a champion tree in any location at these Web sites:
Fairfax County does not have a champion tree program, but individuals can nominate county trees to the Virginia and national registers. People can also nominate “celebrated trees” to the Tree Commission.