Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A Champion of the Urban Forest

This column was originally supposed to run as an "About Arlington" column in the Arlington Connection. For one reason or another, it didn't, so I'm running it here. --ST

The big tree in the backyard, an American sycamore that is the Arlington County champion, spreads limbs over Rod Johnson’s roof, where it mingles with the branches of its sister in the front yard. The house was built intentionally between them, and their roots and limbs hug the house.

Rod Johnson and Kim Finan stand near their county champion American sycamore tree on N. 15th Street in Arlington. (Click to enlarge the image.)

“It,” the big tree, “owns us,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview over the winter. He was joking, but not. He said he, and his wife Kim Finan, is not rightly the owner, but merely “a custodian for a period of time.”

What they found as custodians when they began to landscape the backyard about a decade ago was that the trees find all the water in the ground beneath them.

“Nothing can compete with the roots of that tree,” he told me as we chatted in his living room.

They find water even though Lubber Run has been funneled into a pipe underneath their backyard on N. 15th Street. The tree finds so much water, and soaks up so much sun in the backyard, lariope is the only plant they can get to grow underneath it, so they stopped trying to grow shrubs and grass and put a patio under the big tree. With tables and chairs, and a circular bench at the base of the tree, it’s like a living room in the backyard.

Mr. Johnson and Ms. Finan also found that caring for the tree ran about $3,000 over the past three years, which included paying an arborist to examine the tree.

They want to care for it, but they will not let it fall into their house. It has hollowed sections and is cabled together, and they’ll take the tree down if it comes to that.

What they didn't know when they first bought the house was that it was the county champion.

That they learned from Greg Zell, a naturalist with the county, who knocked on their front door one day. He does that. He drives through the county looking for champions, especially when the leaves are gone and the spread of the limbs is easily seen.

Arlington County Naturalist Greg Zell leans against the county champion black willow in Bluemont park last winter. (Click to enlarge the image.)

He stops when he sees a big tree in a yard and knocks on the front door, asking permission to measure the tree.

When Mr. Zell did that at the Johnson/Finan house, he asked to measure the tree out front, and they asked if he wouldn’t rather measure the “big tree,” which splits into two huge trunks, out back.

Mr. Zell converted the tree’s measurements into points. With 386 points, that sycamore—the largest of the species in the county—was a champion.

Cataloguing and databasing champion trees, other plants and natural resources in the county’s so-called “urban forest,” is part of Mr. Zell’s swan song, part of the Natural Heritage Resource Inventory that he began a couple years ago and that he hopes to finish before his retirement in the next couple of years. He and others in Arlington have found 84 county or state champion trees. Twenty of them are on private property.

He and I spent one afternoon earlier this winter in snowy parks admiring the county treasures.

A chestnut oak in Bluemont Park is large enough that three men could stand side-by-side inside it. A black willow nearby is not nearly so large, but a champion for its species. It is a leftover, Mr. Zell said, from a time when the park was still part field and part forest.

Measuring the trees is an ongoing process, a process he hopes will be continued after his retirement.

This mammoth chestnut oak in Bluemont Park (near the disc golf course) is the third largest in the state and a tree of "regional significance" according to the county's champion trees pamphlet for 2007-2008. (Click to enlarge the image.)



Related links…

  • Long Branch Nature Center
  • Arlington Champion Trees 2007-2008
  • Nominate a Tree
  • County Press Release: 10 Champion Trees Protected in Arlington
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