January 14, 2020
While working on a history of Monumental Avenue, it came to me that the trees are a bit unusual — so many, so tall, so old. Also, a tree was taken down at one of the houses near the lower part of the avenue about a month or so ago — it had been hit by lightning — and because it is on the county right of way (right next to the street), the county took it down. I started thinking that the stump might be a good opportunity for someone who knows about trees to tell how old it was. So I looked online yesterday and found out that Virginia has area foresters, I emailed the head guy, and he put Clint Phegley, area forester for the Capital work area, in touch with me.
Clint visited the neighborhood on January 14 and looked at the tree, but said what he really needed to do was to take a core sample. This is the tiny hole they drill in trees and take out a straw-like bit that reveals the rings that they can count to age a tree (no trees are harmed with this process). I didn’t want to go around drilling holes in just anyone’s trees without telling them what we were doing first, so I messaged homeowners to ask permission.
Sally was the first to respond, so we tried her tree. It was too big in diameter (dbh is the term — diameter breast height) for the instrument he had — it needs to get to the middle of the tree and just a tad beyond. We checked another tree in her back yard but it was also too big. Matt and Pam had said we could check out their yard, and we could see their trees were smaller in dbh, so we took a sample from one of their trees.
Now, to answer an obvious question — are the larger dbh trees older than the smaller dbh trees? The answer, according to Clint, is no. The smaller dbh trees are in more crowded conditions — other trees around them, and so they wouldn’t have expanded so much — they have had some competition. While with me, Clint also used an instrument to calculate the height of the trees and determined that they are about 85’ tall.
Long story short, we got a good sample from Matt and Pam’s place. Clint took it back to put it under a microscope and will let me know the age maybe as early as tomorrow. He did tell me the trees on our street are very healthy and have many good years ahead of them.
The pine trees on Monumental pre-date the oldest houses on the street, I know this because I have found some old pictures. The end of the street near Libbie are pre-war houses (mostly early 1940s), the last five, closest to the JCC, are postwar houses (early 1950s).
Clint said the pine trees in the neighborhood are longleaf pine. If you are interested in the history of longleaf pine in this part of the West End area and the rest of the South, a good source is: https://www.srs.fs.fed.us/pubs/gtr/gtr_srs166.pdf. A less technical article is this one: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/photos-capture-longleaf-pine-forests-american-south-180967891/
So you might wonder how long longleaf pines live? Here’s an article from last month about the oldest known living one — in North Carolina — that clocks in at 471 years old: (http://science.unctv.org/content/blog/leafpine). That’s the upper part of the range, of course, but https://longleafalliance.org/what-is-longleaf/the-tree/life-stages notes that they can reach 250 years old in general.
Follow-up email received from Clint on January 15, 2020:
“I’ve looked at the sample I gathered out of the longleaf pine off of Monumental Ave., and was able to estimate the age. The age I was able to estimate from just using my eyes was ~110 years old. Due to how close the rings got in recent years, I’m expecting I missed some and the tree is even somewhat older.”
“After talking with a coworker who is much more experienced in longleaf ecology, he has informed me that while Longleaf Pine will slow its growth down to almost a complete stop sometime around the age it is now, they can live to be up to 500 years old in the wild. Usually urban/street trees have a lower life expectancy than trees found in a forested setting, but these trees should still be able to thrive for at least another 100 years barring any natural disaster (like the lightning strike that recently occurred). They are also very resistant to most beetle attacks, and have some of the strongest tap roots of any trees in the area making them very resilient to wind events. Overall, all the trees I saw were in great condition, and there are no immediate concerns with damage, decline, etc.”