Mighty Oak Poised to Become Md. State Tree

By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 28, 2007

Seventeen years ago, Victor and Linda Pepe were inspecting their newly purchased farm in northwest Montgomery County when they saw a thick trunk and stout tree limbs reaching out of a woodsy patch.

That's a no-account tree, the former owner told them later. "That old tree is getting ready to die," he said.

He couldn't have been more wrong.

State experts say the Pepes' tree, long identified as the biggest white oak in Montgomery, has grown to become the largest known white oak in Maryland. That makes it the likely successor to the Wye Oak, a centuries-old Eastern Shore granddaddy that achieved celebrity status as a national champion before it was toppled during a storm in 2002.

The Pepes' oak, in a sloping field near Barnesville, "is just a magnificent tree," said Joe Howard, a longtime member of Montgomery's Forestry Board. "I've seen a lot of trees. I can say this tree is in very good shape."

The tree, named Flora's Oak in honor of a relative, is estimated to be 200 to 300 years old and stands 107 feet tall, with a trunk circumference of 22.3 feet and a crown spread of 115 feet. It doesn't have the girth of the Wye Oak, whose hollowed-out trunk was more than 31 feet around, and its crown is four feet narrower. But the Pepes' tree is 11 feet taller.

County Forestry Board members mailed a letter to the governor's office Dec. 19 requesting that the Pepes' oak be recognized as the new Maryland state tree.

The practice of searching for and cataloguing giant trees began in Maryland more than 80 years ago with the state's first forester, Fred W. Besley. The Wye Oak, in Talbot County, topped the state's list from 1925 on, and it prompted the Maryland General Assembly to declare the white oak species the state tree in 1941.

After the Wye Oak fell at the estimated age of 460 years, state foresters launched a search for a successor. National champion status passed to a southern Virginia white oak that had a circumference of 26 feet and a crown spread of 116 feet when it was measured four years ago. Maryland honors were shared by white oaks in Anne Arundel and Cecil counties.

But Maryland's big tree experts took measurements this fall to determine a Wye Oak successor, knowing that the competition between these giants plays out over years.

"We believe genetics is only a small part of what makes a tree grow big," said Deborah Gangloff, executive director of American Forests, a Washington-based organization that promotes reforestation and keeps a national registry of champion trees. "Where it's planted, how it's cared for will determine how large a tree grows."

In the 17 years that the Pepes have looked after Flora's Oak, the tree has added 1.8 feet in circumference and 17 feet in height, and its crown has spread an additional 22 feet, according to November measurements taken by John Bennett, volunteer manager of the Maryland Big Tree Program.

"If these big white oaks receive some tender loving care, they're quite capable of putting on some considerable growth," he said.

For New York City-bred Victor Pepe, buying the farm and nurturing the oak "is the fulfillment of a dream that I didn't know was in me." He said he knew nothing of the countryside as a child, growing up in Harlem with his two siblings and Italian immigrant parents, Stella and Francesco.

He enlisted in the Marine Corps as a teenager and, courtesy of the GI Bill, was the first in his family to attend college. He graduated from the University of Maryland in 1958. He was drawn to home building in the burgeoning Washington suburbs and in 1970 became a partner in Senate Construction, now Senate Homes of Rockville.

Pepe prospered, and he moved his younger sister, Flora, and her family from the Bronx to Rockville in the 1970s. In 1988, Flora died of pancreatic cancer at 54, leaving behind a husband and three daughters.

In December of that year, Pepe visited a Poolesville farm to cut a Christmas tree. He returned to his high-rise Bethesda condominium convinced that he should live in the country. After two years of searching, Pepe bought a 225-acre farm with a front porch view of Sugarloaf Mountain and named it Stella's Dream in honor of his mother. The tree, his wife suggested, should bear Flora's name.

The Pepes cleared away competing trees and undergrowth, allowing the oak's branches to spread freely, which gave the tree such balance that it doesn't need cables for support. They installed grounding wires to protect it against lightning strikes. They had certified arborists inspect it for fungus and gypsy moths, and they fertilized the tree regularly. They even stopped planting row crops nearby because they saw how herbicide applications curled the tree's leaves.

On a recent visit, Linda Pepe patted the tree's rough trunk as if it were the flank of a favorite horse. "Sweet, sweet girl," she said.

Within sight of the tree, a row of simple headstones marks the graves of Victor Pepe's parents, sister Flora and other family members. In 2000, he sought permission from the Montgomery zoning board to create a family burial plot near Flora's Oak.

Now 74, Pepe continues to maintain his land with a meticulous eye, despite repeated bouts of cancer and congestive heart failure. He has picked out his burial site.

"I'm an immigrant's son who couldn't speak English when he went to Catholic school at 6," he said. "I'm blessed! We have been so blessed!"

Pepe has arranged for ownership of the farm to stay within the family. If Flora's Oak becomes the new state tree, he said, the family will consider how to share it with the public. After all, he said, "it's all God's way of saying to me, 'You did good, and you did right.' "

© 2007 The Washington Post Company