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A Tale of Two Trees

Two Old Trees? Tale of Two Trees?

One was felled by the hand of man. A second still stands, but wrenched and wounded. Two mighty oaks if there ever were, two silent witnesses to time and history.

Both might have offered shade to George Washington on his River Farm. One, on a bluff above the Potomac; the other on a small knoll just to the southwest. Old, big trees, both.

"Only God can make a tree," wrote Alfred Joyce Kilmer, and these were major works.

The first, a Southern Red Oak, was thought by its owner, who asked to remain unidentified, to be between 350 and 400 years old. It was located in Wellington Villa, near the former boundary between Washington’s land and that of George Mason. Mike Knapp, the director of Fairfax County’s Urban Forestry Department said the tree was listed on his Big Trees Registry and was the seventh largest Red Oak in the County. Three other registry trees remain nearby—a persimmon, a scarlet oak, and a willow oak.

"I have spent a lot of money in recent years to keep the tree alive," said its owner, whose family has lived in Wellington Villa since 1915. "The trunk was rotten inside and hollow to the ground. It was time to cut it down."

KNAPP SAID that height, span, and trunk diameter give clues to an experienced arborist about a tree’s age, but there are only two methods of determining it exactly. "Short of cutting down the tree and counting the annual growth rings, one can only take a core from the trunk with a special boring tool. The core will reveal the number of rings, yet not damage the tree."

But the stump of the Wellington Red Oak will not reveal the tree’s age since the heartwood in the center of the trunk was rotten, with only the outer third of the rings intact. Knapp said that Red Oak rings will vary from 1/8" to 3/8" in width. Since the stump has a radius of 36", Knapp’s formula suggests it might have been between 96 (3/8" average) and 288 (1/8" average) years old.

THE FIFTH LARGEST White Oak in the Big Tree Registry stands in nearby Waynewood. Dominating the front yard of Michael and Liz Imphong, its branches spread protectively not only over their house, but also the neighbors’. Last week, one of the tree’s major limbs crashed to the ground during a rainsquall, leaving a gap in its huge canopy.

"We bought this house because of the tree," said Mrs. Imphong, "and we have worked hard to keep it healthy. We were shocked when the branch fell."

Imphong said the former owners of her house claimed the tree was 250 – 350 years old and that Washington used it as one of the marker points of the River Farm boundary. Neither Mary Thompson, the librarian at Mount Vernon, nor the estate’s horticulturist, Dean Norton, could confirm that claim. Given that Washington bought the land from William Clifton in 1769, the tree might have been just a sapling 233 years ago. If closer to 350 years old, and standing alone in a field, the tree could have served as a landmark.

"We are going to ask our arborist to take a core sample to determine the tree’s age," said Imphong.

Plantation owners, farmers, timber merchants, and Civil War quartermasters logged the Mount Vernon area extensively during the past 400 years. Not many trees survived that onslaught, even fewer the developer’s bulldozers in the 1950s. Those that remain are few in number and are living reminders of our history.