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Redesigned website highlights Virginia’s big trees

April 27, 2016

A large cucumbertree in front of the Violet Bank Museum
This cucumbertree (Magnolia acuminata) may not be a state champion, but it has historical significance. Believed to have been planted in 1708, the tree stands on the grounds of the Violet Bank Museum in Colonial Heights, which served as General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters during the siege of Petersburg in the Civil War.

The state’s big trees might seem even a little “bigger” on the Virginia Big Tree Program’s newly redesigned website.

“The website lists information about the largest trees in Virginia,” said Eric Wiseman, associate professor of urban forestry and arboriculture and a Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment. He serves as coordinator of the Virginia Big Tree Program.

“We hope this redesign will encourage even more individuals to use the website,” Wiseman said. “We aimed for a simpler, intuitive layout that will be easier to use on mobile devices.” He added that updating the website in time for Arbor Day, celebrated this year on April 29, seemed appropriate.

Virginia’s big trees are those that are the largest of their species, measured by height, trunk circumference, and crown spread. The website lists the five largest trees of more than 300 different species and includes photographs of the honored trees as well as their location, the names of the individuals who nominated them, and in some cases, the name of landowner.

Virginia ranks fourth on the National Big Tree Register with 63 national champion trees. Having that many national champions is notable because, through its history, some of Virginia’s major economic development was through farming and logging operations, which removed many of the state’s largest trees. Today, urbanization and extreme weather are the greatest threats to big trees.

Wiseman has coordinated Virginia’s Big Tree Program since 2013, with support from Tracey Sherman, administrative assistant, and John Peterson, database manager, both of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. A student intern, funded by the Virginia Urban Forest Council, assists with the program each summer.

The website redesign was completed by Sarah Gugercin, research associate in the College of Agriculture and Life SciencesDepartment of Horticulture, with financial support from a Virginia Forestry Educational Foundation grant.

In addition to maintaining the Virginia Big Tree register, the Big Tree Program has several other audiences and is also used in environmental education, Wiseman said. Schools help students learn the tree measuring techniques and, for example, find the largest trees of different species on their school campuses. Arborists and urban foresters refer to the website to identify champion trees they help protect against threats such as storms or pests.

Some travelers and tourists plan their vacations around champion trees. “Many individuals seek out the trees as a hobby and have a bit of a competitive spirit when it comes to discovering champion trees,” Wiseman said. Community and civic groups often mark champion trees with signs and special fences to help visitors find them and to protect the trees. “We hope the website will encourage everyone to appreciate and protect these special trees.”

The website also contains cultural and historical information. Some of the big trees are on historical properties or were planted by famous historical figures, such as the osage orange at Red Hill, the Patrick Henry National Memorial. The Virginia Tech campus is home to several state champion trees.

Champion trees must be recertified every 10 years. A network of volunteers and the student intern collaborate annually to recertify about 100 trees. Should a champion tree be lost to old age or land development, a new champion is crowned and displayed on the website.

The Virginia Big Tree program started in 1970 as a 4-H and Future Farmers of America project. It flourished under the decade-long leadership of Jeffrey Kirwan, professor emeritus of forestry, Extension specialist, and co-author of “Remarkable Trees of Virginia,” which tells the story of interesting trees through stunning photographs and rich narratives.

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