Even before the founding of Jamestown, trees have played an important role in Virginia. To showcase the state’s most special trees and to connect a new generation to its roots, Virginia Tech professor Jeff Kirwan teamed up with garden writer and lecturer Nancy Ross Hugo and internationally recognized photographer Robert Llewellyn to produce the book Remarkable Trees of Virginia.
The trio published the book of nominated trees in August 2008 after four years of work. The Virginia Big Tree Program, funded by Trees Virginia and coordinated by Kirwan, provided the foundation from which the authors worked. This program identifies and catalogs the state’s largest trees. These “champion trees,” the largest of their species, are determined by a formula using the tree’s circumference, height, and crown.
Kirwan said that when he decided to update the state’s list of champion trees several years ago, he expected to find that at least some of the trees had died. To his dismay, Kirwan said 40 percent of the trees originally identified by the program were dead and still others were in poor health. Even more disheartening, approximately 25 percent of the landowners were not aware that they had champion trees on their property.
Virginia has traditionally ranked high among states for champion trees because of its diversity of tree species. Thanks to the efforts of the Virginia Big Tree Program, Virginia now ranks fifth in the nation, with 56 champion trees in the National Register of Big Trees, published by American Forests.
The Virginia Big Tree Program provided a starting point for the Remarkable Trees of Virginia book project. The authors said they hope the book will help to increase awareness and appreciation for trees, particularly within local communities. “We’re trying to emphasize the values of trees and the services they provide,” Kirwan said.
The book features the stories and photographs of Virginia’s most remarkable 100 trees. “We have chapters of big trees, historic trees, community trees, tree places, unique or unusual trees, and noteworthy specimens,” Kirwan noted. The book, as well as the Remarkable Trees of Virginia project’s website, lists each of the more than 1,000 trees nominated and the person who nominated it, regardless of whether or not the tree was selected.
Kirwan grew up in a rural section of Maryland that has since lost many of its trees to the growing metropolitan areas of southeast Washington D.C. This urbanization of forestland made him realize the true value of trees. As a professor in the Department of Forestry in the College of Natural Resources, Kirwan, who is the state's Extension 4-H specialist for forest resources and environmental conservation, has been recognized for his collaborative work on developing an interactive tutorial to help students identify woody plants and trees. He has also taught basic forestry principles to Native American high school students in Minnesota. In January 2009, Kirwan accompanied a group of Virginia Tech students to Washington D.C. to show school children how to plant 44 trees at the Anacostia National Park.
“Trees connect us with our roots,” Kirwan said. “Trees that are 300 or 400 years old have been witnesses to every single event in our country’s history.”
“Trees, to me, are the highest and best representations of nature,” Hugo explained. “I’m fascinated by them. After we looked at the Virginia Big Tree Program register, we envisioned a book that would not only unveil champion trees, but would also honor trees that were noteworthy for their age, beauty, history, and community significance.”
One particular tree, the Emancipation Oak, was nominated by four different people. Though it is not the largest of its kind, this remarkable tree resides on the campus of Hampton University. In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was read for the first time in the South under this noteworthy oak by educator Mary Peake, who later taught lessons to newly freed men and women beneath this same tree. The National Geographic Society designated this oak as one of the 10 Great Trees of the World because it is witness to one of the most significant moments in our nation’s history.
A major focus of the book project was to incorporate children in the nomination process. The authors involved scout troops, 4-H groups, and schools. “The project encouraged children to connect not just to trees in general but to specific trees,” Hugo said. “We wanted them to look carefully at the trees in their neighborhoods, so that they would begin to feel connected to specific trees and their habitats, not just to anonymous nature.”
The book project was sponsored by Virginia Tech’s forestry department, Virginia Forestry Education Foundation, Bartlett Tree Experts, Robert H. Smith Family Foundation, Peck Family Fund, and Trees Virginia (the state’s urban forestry council).
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