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Reaching for the sky: Virginia’s majestic trees inspire awe

Reaching for the sky: Virginia’s majestic trees inspire awe

Across the commonwealth, awe-inspiring giants tower over the land, creating serene spaces to contemplate nature—giants like the stately American beech tree in New Kent County.

Measuring a staggering 90 feet high with a 224-inch trunk, the commonwealth champion dwarfs landowner Clynt Parrish in his front yard. A fixture on the property for nearly 200 years, the tree’s grandeur is captivating.

Parrish’s tree is one of hundreds of large trees throughout the state recognized by the Virginia Big Tree Program. An outreach program of Virginia Cooperative Extension, the initiative aims to promote the conservation and care of forests by celebrating Virginia’s largest trees.

What began as a 4-H and FFA enterprise in 1970 to encourage youth engagement in forestry and natural resources has branched into a community of tree enthusiasts scouting standouts on historical sites, public areas, farms, residences and in the wild.

“It’s a way to get people excited, inspired and appreciative of trees and forests,” said Eric Wiseman, an associate professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation and coordinator of the Virginia Big Tree Program.

Big trees bring to mind titans like the 139-foot-high tulip poplar in Bedford County or Harrisonburg’s 96-foot-tall Fraser fir standing sentinel over the city cemetery. But “big” is relative, Wiseman said.

“We recognize the three largest specimens of each species of tree,” he explained. “They’re super big for their species but not necessarily huge, towering trees. Our state champion dogwood, for example, is a relatively small tree but big for its kind.”

Recording the natural marvels has led to a registry of over 2,500 trees encompassing 400 native and non-native species. The Virginia Big Tree Register boasts 566 state champions with 82 claiming the national title—the biggest in the country recognized by American Forests’ National Champion Trees Register.

Trees are ranked and scored on a point system based on height, trunk girth and average crown spread. The champions are periodically visited by volunteers and arborists for recertification.

While age isn’t a factor for scoring, “big trees are often ancient trees,” Wiseman noted. “It’s one of the ingredients—they’ve got to live a reasonable amount of time to get to superlative size.”

In a time of increasing modernization and development, big trees serve as a reverent reminder of past generations and changes they’ve endured. There are trees that survived battlefields, helped shade cattle, or served as a property boundary on an old homestead.

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