On a chill morning late last month, the massive white oaks flanking the Evans family’s Alcova Heights, Arlington, home are bare, limbs twisting high over the roof of the 1836 historic landmark house, called Alcova. The oaks, which have been designated notable trees by Arlington County’s program of the same name, grow so close to the front and back doors that they are almost flush with the home’s antebellum exterior.
“It’s part of the character of the house,” Moley Evans said.
In full leaf, the oaks provide an impressive summer canopy, covering the bulk of the house. “In the summer months, the trees help shade it. They keep the house pretty cool,” Evans said. A third tree in the yard, a black gum, is also designated notable for being one of the county’s oldest of its kind. All that shade makes for a laborious cleanup in the fall. “The leaves are knee-deep,” she said, noting that when leaves are raked onto the street for pickup, they take up an entire block.
Under Arlington County’s Notable Trees Program, started in 1987, residents can apply to have their trees designated notable by filling out an application on the county’s Web site. Since the program’s inception, more than 265 trees have been nominated; 150 trees are currently designated notable. In most cases, trees qualify on the basis of age and size, although on rare occasions they can receive the designation for historical reasons, as when an oak tree in the county was recognized for having been a marker used by George Washington to survey the region. Arlington County’s Urban Forestry Committee evaluates program applicants using scoring criteria based on height, trunk diameter and canopy spread.
Although the program can’t ensure legal protection for the trees, successful applicants receive a certificate or a plaque, as well as inclusion in the Notable Trees registry. The c ounty’s naturalists hope the designations will raise awareness of the trees’ significance to the community.
“The hope is that people will preserve these trees, and maybe realize how important they are,” said Patrick Wegeng, environmental landscape supervisor for the county’s Parks and Natural Resources Division. “Perhaps the owner of the property or its neighbors or the civic association in that community will recognize that these are noteworthy trees.”
The Evans family is sold. The children — Charlotte, 9, and Will, 7 — dig around the base of the trees, whose massive girth provides satisfying opportunities for games of hide-and-seek. The trees’ height doesn’t make for great climbing, although the crotch of the oak behind the house directly adjoins the Evans’ second-story sunroom. “The kids ask us, ‘Can we climb out the window and play on it?’ ” Evans says, shaking her head as she regards the approximately 55-foot-high spot where the tree forks into separate branches.
John Wingard, a volunteer for the nonprofit group TreeStewards of Arlington and Alexandria, surveys prospective notable trees for the county’s program, including the Alcova trees. Wingard thinks the white oaks could predate the 1836 historic home, Arlington’s second-oldest after Arlington House, the former Custis-Lee Mansion that overlooks Memorial Bridge. Wingard proffers a “rough guess” that the trees are more than 150 years old.
Wingard said the trees’ proximity to the house spared them during the Civil War, when most other trees in the immediate area were felled. “In this area, any trees were cut down around the time of the Civil War because they were trying to clear a line of fire for the [Union] forts,” Wingard said. “If the tree was right next to a house, they wouldn’t cut her down.”
Wegeng said that designating trees such as those at the Evans’ Alcova home helps strengthen residents’ appreciation of tree conservation throughout the county. “There’s a strong belief in the prosperity of urban forestry in Arlington — that goes without saying,” Wegeng said. “We believe in our trees. We believe in maintaining that urban canopy. And when we have stalwarts like these notable trees, it lends credence to how, even in a highly dense urban community, we can have very wonderful specimens.”
Lanyi is a freelance writer.