Old tree

Long before the Pilgrims stood on Plymouth Rock, before John Smith sailed Chesapeake Bay, before Pocahontas fell in love with John Rolfe, the Southern red oak at Longwood’s Hull Springs Farm was a little sapling on the banks of Glebe Creek.

How do I know?

Mary Farley Ames Lee ’38, who later bequeathed her 626-acre farm on the Potomac River to Longwood, asked me to find out. The year was 1992, and she had just introduced me to the wondrous oak. “Dr. Jordan, is there any way you can tell me how old my tree is?” she asked. Thus the research project began.

Very carefully and under the guidance of a forester, students in the Archaeology Field School dug tiny exploratory holes around the tree. Beneath the roots, we discovered a Colonial clay tobacco pipe of the type made in England between 1590 and 1630. Someone had dropped that tobacco pipe on that spot, and then the tree began to grow over it.

At the same time, other Longwood scientists were working to determine the tree’s age from another direction. Carolyn Wells and Thelma Dalmas, professors in natural sciences at that time, turned to dendrochronology, sometimes called tree-ring dating. They went to the farm and, with the assistance of caretaker Eddie Carey Jr., drilled a pencil-sized cylinder of wood in a hollow metal tube all the way to the center of the huge oak. They then used microscopes to count the rings deposited each year of the tree’s life. Counting backwards one year for each ring revealed the tree had begun as a year-old sapling in 1595.

The date range of the tobacco pipe and the growth rings of the tree matched perfectly. We now know that Longwood’s Southern red oak has enjoyed 422 birthdays. May it have many, many more.

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