Meg Hibbert Contributing writer
If only it could talk, what tales of Salem’s history and people the Osage Orange tree next to Dr. Esther Brown’s home could tell. And now the almost-200-year-old triple-trunked guardian has a new story of its own.
Roanoke Valley Tree Stewards measured the tree up, down, around and in the sky on June 1, using a laser hipsometer. The findings volunteers Harry Van Guilder and Bobby Lyon Jr. will help determine if the tree next should be a candidate for the Virginia Big Tree Register.
“We point the hypsometer at the base of the tree and at the top. It does the math,” Van Guilder explained.
The register includes more than 2,000 documented big trees in Virginia, including two Osage Orange trees in Charlotte County and Fairfax County that are the state’s current No. 1 and No. 2 state as well as being national champions.
It turns out that while not a state champion – yet – the tree on the site of Salem’s oldest home that dates back to 1821 and is now owned by the Salem Historical Society is almost tied with the state’s fourth-place tree largest-known tree in Culpeper, and a few points behind the third-place tree in Clarke County.
Van Guilder says, “It is a tree of which we can be proud.”
The tree presides over the back patio where the Tea Tavern has outdoor seating in warm weather. Although this tree and another closer to Main Street are males and therefore, don’t have fruit, local children and adults may know Osage Orange as Hedge Apple trees because of the wrinkly, chartreuse grapefruit-sized fruit that fall along Shanks Street and other areas of Salem.
Esther Davis was thrilled to help Van Guilder and Lyon measure. She is the Preston Place volunteer gardener and groundskeeper who contacted Virginia Big Tree folks to get the process started.
Salem resident Davis frequently can be found grubbing around the roots of the Osage Orange and other places on the property to discover old plantings Dr. Brown favored before carefully transplanting them to garden beds she is re-developing.
Watching Van Guilder and Lyon at work, and even holding one end of the monstrously long tape measure “was such fun to be part of that, to see what was involved,” she wrote to Van Guilder in an email after the visit.
He turned over his findings to the Virginia Big Tree folks at Virginia Tech for consideration. Van Guilder and Lyon found the tree’s circumference is 273 inches – using a formula for measuring multi-stem trees; the vertical height is 70 feet and the average canopy spread is 92 feet.
Total points of 366 are calculated using one point per inch of circumference, one point per foot of height and ¼ point per foot of average canopy spread, Van Guilder explained.
He added that if something happens to one of the four largest-known trees, “the Salem tree might be added at a later date.”
In February, Davis first contacted Virginia Tech’s Dr. P. Eric Wiseman, who heads the Big Tree program.
Dr. Wiseman, who is an Associate Professor of Urban Forestry in Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation and has measured many of the state’s top big trees, asked Van Guilder to take on the project.
David Brown, one of Dr. Brown’s sons, later told Davis he had tried without success to get the big tree documented.
Brown descendants gave the house and property to the Salem Historical Society four years ago. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and believed to be the oldest house in Salem.
Dr. Brown was the first woman to be a doctor in Salem, and a much-loved Salem citizen. She was a descendant of Charles Preston, who bought the farm and house in 1879.
Davis encouraged anyone who has what they believe is a record large tree to contact the Virginia Big Tree Registry, after first searching the site to see if that variety has already been documented. The webpage is bigtree.cnre.vt.edu.