Noble Honor Takes Root

Olivia Viola, 13, and Marco Viola, 10, in the boughs of a magnolia in their yard in Arlington. The tree has won a notable tree designation.
Olivia Viola, 13, and Marco Viola, 10, in the boughs of a magnolia in their yard in Arlington. The tree has won a notable tree designation. (By Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)
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By Susan Straight
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 17, 2009

When lightning destroyed one of two beautiful hundred-year-old trees in a North Arlington enclave, neighbors mourned the loss. It motivated them to consider the health of another centagenarian tree -- a white oak in their ironically named Black Oak Cluster neighborhood.

"Everyone loves that tree," said Susie Gardner, who lives next door to the white oak, which grows on public space between two houses. They decided to get serious about preserving it. First, they called in a tree specialist who outfitted the tree with a lightning rod. Then the other neighbor living next door to the tree, Helene Ebrill, completed an application for it to be included in Arlington's Notable Trees program. "My husband and I took the crown spread, or canopy cover, measurement," she said. They also measured the trunk circumference and estimated its height.

"We were very gratified and happy when we were notified by the county that the tree was being recognized as a notable tree. It was a nice feeling. Arlington does a lot to recognize trees and the people taking care of them, so we're happy to be part of that," said Ebrill. The tree is estimated to be 125 years old.

Like Ebrill, more than 400 county residents have nominated their trees to receive the exclusive "Notable Tree" designation over the past 22 years. About 195 trees have received the honor.

The trees are evaluated according to size or age, species, historical interest, and special significance to the neighborhood. They are not necessarily the biggest or the most rare; some are common trees that happen to occupy a central place in the community.

The oldest tree in the county, and a designated notable tree, is a post oak dating to the 1750s. "That's a true colonial tree," said Greg Zell, a natural resource specialist with Arlington County.

Arlington also keeps track of the largest tree of each species. "It's an ever-changing list," said county Landscape and Forestry Supervisor Jamie Bartalon. Every time a larger tree of a species is found, it bumps the previous champ off the list. The largest tree in Arlington is a 150-foot tall tulip poplar in Fort C.F. Smith Park, site of a Civil War fort. Its trunk has a girth of nearly 21 feet.

Natural Resource Specialist Greg Zell oversees nominees to the Champion Tree program, a national program run by the conservation group American Forests, which designates the largest tree of a species.

Thirty-one of the biggest trees in Virginia stand in Arlington, and two of the biggest trees in the United States are in the county.

Part of the reason for the high numbers is that a high percentage of Arlington trees are really old. Local forests were cleared during the colonial period and again in places during the Civil War, Zell said. The District also has some large old trees worthy of note. Casey Trees, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the District's tree canopy. Jared J. Powell, director of communication at Casey Trees, which runs the District's tree-recognition program, said the group is planning to use geocaching (a pursuit best-described as a GPS-aided treasure hunt) and online maps to engage the public.

The program rewards three categories: Big Trees, Witness Trees (of historic significance), and My Tree (of personal significance). Currently the Big Trees designation includes one national champion, a Jujube (Ziziphus jujube) located on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Its trunk has a 93-inch circumference. The 61-foot tall tree also has a spread of 51 feet.

All winners of the Trees of Note designation will be included on the Casey Trees online map. "The [geocaching] course will change biannualy to feature different or new trees, different neighborhoods and seasonal changes," Powell said. "We hope the geocaching element will introduce individuals to urban forestry and the importance of trees in city living and encourage individuals to see the District as not just a brick and mortar city."

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