Va. tree replaces Wye Oak on national list

Toppled white oak had been ranked largest in the nation

May 21, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Even as the remains of the Wye Oak are being carved into a gubernatorial desk, commemorative crab mallets and various works of art, a tree in southern Virginia was named this week to succeed the fallen Maryland landmark as the biggest white oak in the nation.

Towering 86 feet above Bothwick Hall, the 270-year-old home of George and Mary Robinson in Warfield, Va., the stately tree doesn't quite measure up to the vanished sentinel of tiny Wye Mills, Md.

The Wye Oak was 96 feet tall and nearly 32 feet in girth before it was toppled June 6, 2002, by a fierce thunderstorm. It had been the national champion white oak since the listings began in 1940.

But the Bothwick Hall oak fended off challenges by 15 trees in Maryland, Virginia, New York, Ohio and the District of Columbia, securing its new place in the 2004 National Register of Big Trees. The biennial ranking was published this week by American Forests, a Washington-based nonprofit tree conservation organization.

"It's kind of sad," said Maureen Brooks, who coordinates Maryland's Big Tree Program for the state Forestry Service. "We turned in three nominations - our top trees in the state - and I was hopeful. But that one [in Virginia] must be very huge."

The new champion's trunk is 26 feet in circumference - nearly 6 feet skinnier than the Wye Oak. But it's believed to be older, more than 500 years, compared with the Wye's estimated 460.

Maryland nominated 28 trees for inclusion on the 2004 register, 10 of which were champions on the previous list. Even at 10, the state had more national champion trees per square mile than all other states but Virginia and Florida.

This year, 17 Maryland trees made the register. They include a 120-foot box elder in Monrovia, Frederick County; a 103-foot slippery elm in Frederick; a 108-foot mockernut hickory in Upper Marlboro; a 90-foot shagbark hickory in Edgewater (co-champion with another tree); and a 100-foot pond cypress in Bowie.

The new list includes 889 champions and co-champions representing 738 species. The "General Sherman," a giant Sequoia in California, remains the nation's largest tree and the world's largest living thing.

Champion trees are ranked according to a point system devised in 1925 by Fred W. Besley, Maryland's first state forester. The system was adapted by American Forests for its first register in 1940.

Trees are awarded one point for every foot in height and inch of circumference, and a quarter point for each foot of crown spread (a less precise measurement). The Wye Oak reigned supreme with a point total of 508 when it fell. Its Virginia successor's total is 427.

This year's runner-up white oak was a 93-foot-tall tree in Athens County, Ohio, with 398 points, according to Karen Fedor, a vice president of Global Releaf, the parent organization of American Forest.

Brooks said the three Maryland white oaks she nominated for national champion included the Wilbur Stone Oak in Anne Arundel County's Arnold Park (392 points); an oak in Worton, Kent County; and another near Norrisville in Harford County.

All three ranked within five points of each other, she said, making them state co-champions.

Although it lost the white oak trophy, Fedor said, Maryland deflected a Virginia challenge to its national champion honey locust.

The 114-foot tree, on private property in Ijamsville, Frederick County, scored 348 points when it made the register in 2002.

"Then Virginia remeasured its tree, and it was a total of 354 points," Fedor said.

Maryland foresters then went back to remeasure the Ijamsville oak. Apparently it had grown. It reached 373 points, Fedor said, "so it's still the national champion."

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