State's tree bent, proud

200-year-old oak in Anne Arundel park defies damage, to be honored today

August 01, 2008|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

The huge white oak, towering over the sycamores, poplars and dogwoods around it, is bent in the middle, like a spindly old man reaching for a drink of water.

The tree, known as the Wilmer Stone Oak and about 200 years old, did not always look like that. In 1988, burdened by its own weight, half of the tree's Y-shaped structure split from the trunk and crashed to the ground, ending forever the symmetrical beauty that had supported the huge crown under a robust pair of legs.

Even in its wounded state, though, the tree's physique remains magnificent, its 128-foot height undiminished by age or the elements. It is so grand that it will be dedicated today in Arnold as Maryland's state tree, a successor to the Wye Oak in Talbot County and Flora's Oak in Montgomery County, both felled in storms.

The ceremony in Arnold Park will be held around the base of the Wilmer Stone Oak, about 100 feet from a baseball field in a dense, usually undisturbed thicket of woodland. It is to be attended by Anne Arundel County officials, representatives of the Scenic Rivers and Magothy River land trusts, and other tree lovers.

"This is a great honor for the county to have a tree of this stature - no pun intended," John R. Leopold, the Anne Arundel County executive, said yesterday as he gazed up at the imposing trunk. "In England, they used to use trees like this to make masts for the navy's sailing ships."

As he finished his sentence, a silence of sorts resumed in the forest, broken only by the calls of ospreys, wrens, blue jays and cardinals. Deer and fox also populate the woods, darting among the black locust trees, wild grapevines and Virginia creeper.

"You half expect Jane Goodall and some gorillas to come running out of the woods," Leopold said. Next to him, Adam Smith, a county park ranger, leaned down to the ground near the mighty tree and touched the tiny leaves of a nascent oak, barely poking out of the musty earth.

"One day, it may replace that one," Smith said, pointing to the Wilmer Stone Oak, named after a former owner of the land on which the tree stands.

"I don't think we'll be around to see that," Leopold said.

Brian Knox, a member of the Anne Arundel County Forestry Board, said the tree, surrounded as it is by thick woods, "had to compete for sunlight its entire life," making its height all the more spectacular.

Under a measuring system developed in 1925 by Maryland's first state forester, Fred W. Beasley, the Wilmer Stone Oak was recently awarded 402 points, a number arrived at by factoring in the tree's circumference, height and crown width.

The tree's point total made it the state champion, 10 points ahead of its nearest competitor, and it would have been the national champion - a position held by a 427-pointer in Virginia - "had it not lost a part of its trunk," Leopold said.

Tree lovers in Maryland still remember with fondness the national champion Wye Oak, a 460-year-old behemoth in the Eastern Shore community of Wye Mills that crashed to the ground in 2002. Its destruction prompted widespread mourning, and its branches and trunk were later transformed into mementos, most notably a 300-pound desk for the office of Maryland's governor.

The Wye Oak's replacement as the state tree was to have been the almost flawlessly symmetrical Flora's Oak, which stood 107 feet high on a farm in Barnesville and was expected to outgrow the national champion in Virginia. But a powerful storm June 4 knocked it to the ground before it could be designated, dashing the hopes of its owner, Victor Pepe, who had named it after his sister, Flora, who is buried nearby.

Despite its slightly awkward appearance - especially noticeable from a road about half a mile to the east - the Wilmer Stone Oak might one day inspire similar devotion.

"From that angle, it looks like it's about to fall over," said Mark Garrity, Anne Arundel County's parks administrator. "But the experts who came to look at it say it'll be there for another 100 years."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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