A Noble Honor Takes Root

By Susan Straight
Washington, DC (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.”
Though there is no prize money associated with either the Champion Tree or the Notable Tree award, tree owners are sometimes competitive about their trees’ status. Winners receive a plaque or certificate acknowledging the tree in the tree’s category at the County’s Arbor Day ceremony in April. The tree is also listed on the County’s Notable Tree register. “I show people the certificate all the time,” said Nora Palmatier, owner of a red oak notable for its size. “I knew it was really large, but I never really bothered to get it measured” until five years ago, said Palmatier, who lives near Lacey Woods Park in Arlington.
Nominations are reviewed by the county’s Beautification Committee, comprised of volunteers, many of whom have advanced experience in horticulture. Many have completed training as tree stewards through the Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Palmatier had been a tree steward since 2001, and has been the president of the tree stewards since 2007.
Tree stewards look for opportunities to maintain beautiful trees by alerting homeowners to their treasures. Lynn Cook, a tree steward, has nominated especially beautiful, large, or significant trees on private property. “You have to get permission from the homeowner,” she noted. She has left notes on the door of homes with trees she thought might qualify. Most were intrigued by the idea they might have a notable tree and agreed to let Cook apply for the designation on their behalf. “It was very easy. Just a few questions about the care of the tree, how old the tree was. Was the tree on the property when you moved in there?” she said.
It’s not just a feel-good endeavor. “Trees are good for business; they’re good for the environment and the community,” said Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow for environmental policy at the Urban Land Institute, a trade organization for urban planners and developers. “There are hundreds of stories that show that trees increase the value of property,” said McMahon.
Lots with trees sell for an average of 20 to 30 percent more than similarly sized lots without them, according to the National Association of Home Builders. “When people drive into a neighborhood and say, ‘Oh what a beautiful neighborhood,’ what they’re really saying is ‘Oh, what beautiful trees,'” Zell said. “I can clearly tell you that living in a neighborhood with trees makes you feel better. I’ve had people say they picked their neighborhood because of the trees,” he said.
Lynne Willhoit, winner of a notable tree designation last year, recently overheard a kid saying of her house: “I like that house a lot, but I’d chop down that tree.” “I thought it was so funny, because the tree is so much a part of the property,” she said. “It adds some value to the property.”
Trees also save money on cooling costs. A tree-shaded neighborhood on a hot summer day can be seven to eight degrees cooler than a non-shaded area nearby, according to McMahon. “That difference of seven to eight degrees can increase your cooling bill by 50 percent,” he said.
At this time each year, Arlington volunteers spend months visiting each of the nominated trees to measure, photograph and evaluate the health of the trees. They document their findings in a report that is presented to the rest of the Beautification Committee each January. There was a nearly 50 percent increase in nominations last year, according to Bartalon.
“We’re fortunate in Arlington that so many trees were saved during construction, so there are 50- and 60-year-old and even older trees growing in residential areas,” Bartalon said. “People are beginning to appreciate not only the aesthetics but also the environmental benefits,” he said. “Arlington has always been a tree-friendly place,” Bartalon added, calling the Notable Trees program a way to reach out and thank communities that have taken care of their trees.
The Notable Tree designation does not afford the tree any type of legal protection or prevent its removal, according to Bartalon. That would require a request for “special protection” from the County board of directors. If approved, the county will levy a fine if someone removes the tree. “It carries through even if the owner sells the property,” said Bartalon.
Related Resources:
Washington Post- A Noble Honor Takes Root