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Big, Old Trees

‘Witness trees’ at Huntley Meadows Park stand the test of time.

Hidden down a wintry lane along a boundary of Huntley Meadows Park stand three, centuries-old oaks. Somewhere out in the gray woods, a frozen tree, collapsed on its neighbor, creaks with a moaning yelp. But these oaks stand sedately in the bitter cold. Waiting out the season. They were seedlings when Martin Van Buren was president, and young trees as Civil War troops camped beneath them. They've seen it all before.

"They are 'witness trees,'" said Harry Glasgow, president of Friends of Huntley Meadows Park. "They were around to see the Civil War, the rise and fall of agriculture in Fairfax County, urbanization.”

"Witness trees," said Barbara Ballentine, president of Friends of Historic Huntley, "are trees on an historic site that are important to save. They were part of an important history."

The two Friends' groups are working together to preserve the trees. "We want to make sure they're preserved and get the care they need," said Glasgow. "

Michael Knapp, director, Fairfax County Urban Forestry Division, Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, has determined that the trees were planted between 1824 and 1844, possibly as boundary markers of Thompson Mason's summer home and Huntley, which stands on the bluff above them.

WITH THE IMPRESSIVE age of these trees, two swamp chestnut oaks and a willow oak, also comes impressive mass. Out among the younger oaks and sweet gums, these trees are huge. Their old trunks, mossy and fissured, are as big around as modest bedrooms, or Volkswagens with their doors open. The track beneath them, a gas-line right of way, is mounded with their leaves the size of a big man's hand. The larger swamp chestnut oak is the largest tree recorded in the county, or the "Champion" of the Fairfax County Big Tree Registry. It is as tall as a 9-story building. Its crown spread reaching out into the forest is as wide as that building lying down. Although they are very old, they are merely enjoying "advanced middle age," noted Knapp, and they are still growing.

Knapp's monitoring has found, since 1982, the Champion grew 13 feet in height and packed on a 1 1/2 feet to its girth. And they're healthy. "I'm sure they're going to outlive me," continued Knapp.

IN ADDITION to their importance historically, the contribution of these trees to the surrounding ecosystem is as massive as they are. They produce acorns for deer, squirrels and other mammals. Even after the deer ate a lot, recalled Knapp, "I filled three-quarters of a 50- pound feed sack [with acorns] from the Champion." The trees' limbs, trunks, and even their roots provide habitat to birds, spiders, insects, moss and fungus.

The Friends groups are working closely with the Urban Forestry Division. Knapp said, "These trees have done very well without human intervention for a very long time. The only possible threat is the gas-line easement, any construction, impacting the roots. Their overall condition is fairly good."

Although "there is considerable deadwood," he noted, "these trees do not require any major forms of maintenance other than removal of dead, diseased or broken branches."

The Friends' groups are responsible for finding a trained arborist sensitive to the needs of very old trees to selectively prune according to national standards to promote health and prevent introduction of decay.