Mr. Mustache perks up Champion tree: The southern red oak near Galesville, largest of its species in the United States, was showing signs of its age. But it has benefited from a healthy dose of nutrition and some expert care.

August 03, 1996|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

There's a lesson to be learned from old Mr. Mustache: Take your vitamins.

After getting a 400-gallon dose of vitamins a year and a half ago, the tree, about 370 years old, has sprouted nearly a foot of new leaves on many limbs, is adorned in several healthy shades of green and shows only a few dead twigs.

"It's like a human," said A. John Blake, the arborist who tends the tree, the largest southern red oak in the nation. "The older you get, the more vitamins you need."

Nicknamed by children for the shape of its lower limbs, Mr. Mustache dominates a knoll outside Galesville in southern Anne Arundel County. It has reigned as the American Forestry Association's national champion of its species for more than two decades.

Mr. Mustache got his first doctor's visit in March 1995, courtesy of Wye Tree Experts Inc., and Blake has been making monthly visits to the roadside tree ever since. At the first visit, Mr. Mustache showed no signs of recent growth; the ends of huge limbs were shriveled. Nearly three cords of dead wood was pruned from the tree, and the vitamins injected around it.

The solution of fertilizer with a dash of micronutrients was the perfect pick-me-up. Even for Mr. Mustache, a tree 27 feet 7 inches around and 104 feet high with a 135-foot spread -- the feeding lasts at least 18 months.

One morning this week, Blake stood under the enormous canopy of the tree and gushed about Mr. Mustache's health.

"There's lots of new growth," he said, grabbing a piece of the "mustache" and examining a cluster of bright green leaves. Deep greens characterize leaves on older parts of the tree.

Oak-loving gypsy moths, fortunately, have not discovered Mr. Mustache.

The tree has grown tan collars -- the first sign of healing -- around wounds where limbs were lopped off 18 months ago. Those wounds take years to close fully, Blake said.

Greenish-blue lichens on the trunk and some branches aren't harmful and can stay. Gouty oak gall, a common ailment caused by wasps, creates ugly lumps, but isn't damaging the tree.

But Blake was troubled by a rotted limb a foot in diameter that had cracked and fallen since his previous visit. The wound and rotted wood tempt insects and moisture-borne diseases. He will order the branch pruned.

His eyes on the limb five stories up as he paced through knee-high weeds, Blake debated where the best place to prune would be.

"Technically, we should take it all the way back to the trunk," he said, because no shoot is big enough to nutritionally support the remaining few yards of limb.

But there were a few small healthy shoots from that branch. A tree this big and aged needs all its green for photosynthesis, the process whereby plants use light to produce energy and oxygen. The leaves might be good for a few years before the branch would have to come down. He said he would have to think about it.

He said he probably will order another huge feeding next spring. And maybe then, the unsightly tangle of poison ivy and other vines will be hacked from the base.

The Wye company has experience with elderly trees: It tends the state's Wye Oak, the Talbot County giant that pre-dates Capt. John Smith's 1607 sail up the Chesapeake Bay, and other national champions, Blake said.

Mr. Mustache has no plaque announcing his status and doesn't need one. He dwarfs all the trees nearby. Two probably are his progeny, but at an estimated 150 years old -- give or take a decade -- they are saplings by comparison.

The tree atop Virginia Hill is steeped in history. Mr. Mustache overlooks an old pasture at Cedar Park, a 150-acre farm begun in 1697 and owned today by six Bridgman brothers and sisters, descendants of the original owner.

In the 1800s, sailors navigated up the West River using Mr. Mustache as a landmark. The tree probably predates 17th-century Gov. Cecil Calvert.

During its life, the population around it went from Native Americans to white settlers. The hamlet of Providence rose, then faded into oblivion beside Annapolis. Slavery came and went a stone's throw from the tree; old slave quarters stand on the farm.

The property once was owned by John Frances Mercer, governor of Maryland from 1801 to 1803.

For a time, Mr. Mustache was one of four national champion trees on the farm, but the other three are dead.

Pub Date: 8/03/96

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