ROANOKE, Va. – Students squinting down a sunny sidewalk in front of Roanoke College’s library find a moment of cool sanctuary in the verdant shade of an old but ever-growing champion.
A Dutch elm outside the Fintel Library is the largest of its kind measured in Virginia, with a trunk nearly 21 feet in circumference, stretching about 34 feet toward the sun. High branches spread out 25 m and provide pleasant shade for passers-by on hot spring days.
Using a long tape measure to note the tree’s width and spread, and a laser device to measure the height, volunteer tree manager Harry Van Guilder scribbled those tree measurements on his clipboard on a recent Wednesday. In the six years since he last measured this state champion for the Virginia Big Trees program, Van Guilder said his trunk width has been growing at a rate of about 1 inch per year.
“For a tree of this maturity and slow-growing, it still amazes me,” he said. “It’s starting to slow down a bit now. You can see the top has erupted, possibly related to a storm. But then there are a few dead branches towards the tips and that is a sign of old age or disease.”
Roanoke College puts a lot of time, money and effort into maintaining its on-campus urban forest, including really big trees like the state champion Dutch elm, said Bill Martin, landscaping manager.
“We just did a big inventory. That included over 500 trees,” Martin said. “We’re going to start putting QR codes on 50 of them so we can take a tour, a walk around the campus.”
People can use their cellphones to scan these newly installed codes and read more about the types, sizes and histories of notable trees on campus, he said. The first stop on the campus tour is the High Street, which is considered a nationally recognized shade of Dutch elm that has survived human memory and has been planted for more than 180 years, to before 1842.
“I read somewhere that it was planted before or about when the school was founded,” Martin said. “So this tree is older than Roanoke College and obviously survived the surrounding construction and other things.”
The college is hiring experienced arborists to tend to its trees and maintain an urban forest with more than 1,000 trees of 77 different species, he said. Certain species, like the State Champion’s Dutch Elm, not only survive the elements, but also face unique threats such as fungal diseases.
“Wind damage, storm damage. This tree also has lightning protection,” Martin said. “We treat several elm trees on campus for Dutch elm disease and this is one of them.”
It’s the only champion tree on the Roanoke College campus, he said.
“We lost a Champion gum to a flash on the Elizabeth campus a few years ago,” Martin said.
At Virginia Tech, Professor Eric Wiseman coordinates the Virginia Big Trees program and maintains a list of state champions for more than 300 species.
“A lot of these champion trees aren’t in the wild,” Wiseman said. “They’re in places that are just around the corner, and often these trees are in places that have either cultural or historical significance.”
But champion trees often don’t hold their title for long, he said. The Big Tree program strives to remeasure state champions at least every ten years.
“Not all large champion trees have necessarily reached the end of their biological lives, but many of them have, so something that often catches up with these trees is age,” Wiseman said. “Another major damage is storm damage, either lightning strikes or ice storms.”
Forests — full of trees large and small — serve other important purposes that people might not realize, he said.
“These trees, I believe, serve as ambassadors for our forests. People are in love and curious about superlatives, the grandest of things,” Wiseman said. “If we can get people curious about trees of superlatives, we now have an avenue to talk to them about forest ecology, conservation and all the important roles trees play in everyday life.”
Trees perform ecosystem services such as protecting water quality and storing the carbon that people emit into the atmosphere when they drive cars and use other fossil-fuel burning devices, he said. Bigger trees store more carbon.
Another valuable service is the refreshing shade that trees provide on hot days.
Katherine O’Neill, a professor at Roanoke College, has for the past several years guided environmental studies students to map urban warming in Salem, part of a statewide effort to chart temperature variations in cities across Virginia.
“What we found is that many cities have increased heat compared to the surrounding rural area. That’s because there’s less green space, less water movement, and a larger area of dark surfaces like asphalt and dark roofs,” said O’Neill. “We’ve found the neighborhoods that have been hit the hardest, and those are some areas where we’re currently planting food forests.”
As Juneberry and pecan and papaya trees, recently planted by Roanoke College students, grow, their branches will shade surrounding neighborhoods and provide shelter from the sun. And as an added bonus, the plants will grow seasonal edibles.
“Not only do they help offset cooling, but they provide other ecosystem benefits,” O’Neill said. “They contribute to biodiversity, help with stormwater runoff, and perhaps also increase community resilience by providing another food source.”
Whether any of the newly planted seedlings in Salem will become state champions for its kind is a test of time, said Wiseman, the Virginia Big Trees coordinator.
“A lot of champion trees were planted by someone 100 or 150, maybe even 200 years ago,” Wiseman said. “It’s kind of inspiring to me, if someone goes out and plants a tree today, eventually what they plant could have a claim to fame as the largest of its kind in the state.”
Van Guilder, the volunteer tree manager, said his group, Trees Roanoke, is about 50 strong and is always looking for new members. To get involved, he said, go online to treesroanoke.org.
“It’s tree lovers like me who are interested,” said Van Guilder as he measured the state champion Dutch elm. “It would take several of us to hug this tree.”
On a slope of the US Forest Service property near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Botetourt County earlier this year, Dan Miles and Beck Stanley walked over the new Virginia champion pignut hickory tree, which was more than 130 feet tall.
According to Stanley, tall trees are just one of the amazing things found in Virginia’s mountain forests. He said:
“It shows that some of life’s greatest wonders are often right outside our own backyard.”