The Tree That Time Forgot

March 07, 1995|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

At the age of 370, give or take a few decades, Mr. Mustache is getting his first visit from the doctor this week.

Except for being in need of a good meal and heavy pruning, the tree nicknamed by children for the shape of its lower limbs is healthy.

Mr. Mustache, which stands atop a hill outside Galesville in southern Anne Arundel County, is the largest southern red oak tree in the country, pronounced the national champion of its species by the American Forestry Association for more than two decades.

"There is no serious problem, other than lack of care over 200 years," said Allen Butler, owner of Wye Tree Experts Inc., the Wye Mills company that is contributing several thousand dollars' worth of work.

Last winter's ice storms walloped the tree, splintering two huge limbs. Those branches are being cut back to the main trunk. It also appears that at least 25 years ago, another huge limb was lopped off near the trunk and that others broke off, Mr. Butler said.

The greenish-blue lichen growing on part of the trunk can stay. The gouty oak gall, an ailment common in southern Anne Arundel County caused by wasps, doesn't seem to be harming the tree, Mr. Butler said. But limbs hollowed by rot have to go.

Yesterday morning, as chain saws cut into a hollow limb revealing a hornets' nest, Mr. Butler noted the no-sting advantage to working before the warm weather arrives.

His crew of five will work through today, pruning the equivalent of two cords of dead wood and pumping 400 gallons of liquid fertilizer into the ground around the tree.

There is plenty of tree left to soak up that food. The champion is 27 feet 7 inches around and 104 feet high, with branches that spread 135 feet. It dwarfs another southern red oak down the hill, perhaps one of its progeny, but that tree is a mere 150 years old, a sapling compared with the majestic Mr. Mustache.

"Besides the Wye tree, this is probably the biggest I've ever worked on," said Duane Pippin of Easton, who spent yesterday injecting the liquid fertilizer around the tree's drip-line.

That style of feeding serves two purposes: the solution feeds the tree for a good 18 months, and injection aerates the soil.

The Wye company also tends to the health of the state's Wye Oak, the Talbot County giant that predates Capt. John Smith's sail up the Chesapeake Bay in 1607.

Mr. Mustache is no slouch when it comes to history either.

It stands atop "Virginia Hill," overlooking an old pasture at Cedar Park, a 150-acre farm begun in 1697 and owned today by six Bridgman brothers and sisters who are descendants of the original owners.

In the 1800s, sailors navigated up the West River from the bay using this oak as a landmark, said Robert Cheston of Easton, a cousin of the farm's owners.

A friend of Mr. Butler's, he was instrumental in arranging for this week's treatment.

The tree probably predates Cecil Calvert and St. Mary's City's days as the state capital.

It saw the population go from Native Americans to white settlers. It watched the hamlet of Providence grow and then fade into oblivion beside Annapolis. It witnessed slavery -- the farm still has an old slave house -- come and go.

The farm was once owned by John Francis Mercer, governor of Maryland from 1801 to 1803, and later housed a girls' school.

"This is definitely a very important tree," said Sally Bridgman, one of the owners who has fond childhood memories of times spent in its shade.

"I didn't climb it. We used to have picnics under it," Dr. Bridgman said.

She said her grandmother advised her and her brothers and sisters to take care of the trees on the property. The southern red oak is the last survivor of four national champion trees on the estate. A horse chestnut and red cedar have fallen; a beech, struck by lightning, stands dead.

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