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A Living Museum


The London Grove Oak stands in front of a Quaker meeting house about two miles west of Route 1, where the West State Road jogs on to Newark Road.

“I become speechless every time I see it,” says Chadds Ford arborist Robb King. “There is literally nothing like this anywhere in the world.”

Plenty of white oaks thrive in Pennsylvania, but London Grove’s is seriously huge. Last measured in 2006, the London Grove White Oak is the roughly the size of a 9-story building, with branches extending outward 135 feet from a trunk that averages about seven feet in diameter.

A plaque attached to the trunk indicates this is one of the region’s remaining Penn Oaks, an oak tree that is believed to have been alive before 1682, when William Penn first visited Pennsylvania. It is literally part of Penn’s Woods—deeded to him as payment of a debt owed Penn’s father by King Charles II.

A 1690 incorporation document of the London Grove Quaker Meeting, currently archived at Swarthmore, mentions a tree on the site long before the original meetinghouse was constructed. Whether the tree in the document is the tree that survives cannot be determined.

King guesses the tree is anywhere from 325 to 400 years old. He can’t be sure until the tree dies, a cross section is taken across the trunk, and the growth rings are counted.

“When the first surveys were done in 1932 to find what was left of the original Penn’s Woods, the ages were educated guesses based on size and examples of older trees in the region that had died,” he says. “With this tree, you don’t need to know a number to know it’s been around for a long time. If this isn’t the oldest living thing in the county, it’s one of the few.”

He puts his hand on the trunk. “To be able to do this, to be able to touch a thing that’s survived so long.” He lets his hand sit there for a while, and then takes it away.

When we think of old trees, the first that come to mind are the 3,000-year-old California sequoias. California also has Methuselah, a bristle cone pine in the Inyo National Forest that is thought to be as many as 4,800 years old. In Nevada, another bristle cone pine called Prometheus is estimated at 5,000 years old.

A few years ago a 9,550-year-old spruce in Norway—similar to the millions of pines used for Christmas trees—was awarded the title of the oldest tree on the planet after its root system was carbon dated.

Compared with such elders, the old trees of the Brandywine Valley are mere babies. But, for all their youth, they are the region’s most magnificent natural, and historic landmarks, beginning with the man whose commonwealth was unique in the American colonies.

Instead of fighting the native inhabitants of his colony, Penn, who spent barely two years in the land that bears his family name, made peace with them. His treaty “of amity and friendship” with the Lenni Lenape is portrayed in a well-known painting by Benjamin West.

The meeting between Penn and Lenape Chief Tamanend is believed to have taken place under a vast elm tree in a place called Shackamaxon on the western banks of the Delaware River. Shackamaxon was neutral ground among the region’s three Lenape tribes, and also briefly served as a base of operations for Penn in managing and surveying the colony.

The choice of the tree was deliberate: the elm was a sacred object among the Lenape tribes. It survived until 1810, when it was blown down in a storm.

Philadelphia’s Penn Treaty Park, established in 1893, is marking the anniversary of the tree’s demise with an exhibit that quotes a statement made by the US Supreme Court Justice John Marshall in 1831, when Marshall was given a box made from the sacred elm.

“The box is to me an inestimable relic,” Marshall said. “I know no inanimate object more entitled to our reverence than the tree of which it was a part, because I think few events in history have stronger claims on our serious reflection, on our humanity, our sense of rights, and on our judgment, than the treaty which was made under it, and the consequences which followed that treaty.”

Very little remains of Penn’s original woods. Most of what we see today in the Brandywine Valley is secondary growth, trees that were planted, or took seed, after the virgin forests were cleared.

In 1932, Edward Embree, an historian and director of science education for the Philadelphia Public Schools, decided to find as many historic trees in the region as possible, as a “guide to the living monuments of a great man.” Published a year later, Penn’s Woods 1682-1932 lists hundreds of trees in southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, Delaware, and as far south as Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Many stand near Quaker meeting houses. Others tower along side roads, or on private grounds. Several are in parks such as Valley Forge, and in the Tyler, the Morris, and Haverford College arboretums.

In 1982, a new edition was published that revisited those trees, identified those that had died, and added several more.

Now the task of cataloging the region’s oldest and largest trees is in the hands of Scott Wade, an arborist in Media. His web site, www.pabigtrees.com, lists every historic tree of which he is aware, as well as the “champions”—trees that are the largest known examples of their species.

Wade doesn’t list the trees” ages, he says, “because that’s speculative. If it’s big, you can be sure it didn’t get that way overnight.”

Explore Wade’s web site and after a while you”ll notice that, no matter where you live, you’re not far from a tree whose age, size, appearance, and historic and cultural significance is nothing short of immense.

And then there’s Longwood Gardens.

Most visitors to the former estate of Pierre S. du Pont are impressed by the fountains or the spectacular indoor floral displays. When weather permits, some who venture out along the landscaped pathways might be confused at a mulberry propped up on crutches, “They want to know why we don’t just take it down and plant a new one,” says Shawn Kister, Longwood’s grounds division leader.

It’s precisely because of that tree, and about 5,000 others (representing 380 species, including several champions and 40 bonsais), that Longwood exists. The region’s foremost industrialist bought the property a little more than a century ago from the Peirce family (whose ancestors got it from William Penn himself). du Pont wanted to save the trees from being cut down and sold off as lumber. His will provided for the protection and perpetuation of these trees, forever.

“The preservation and care of trees is considered of first importance,” du Pont wrote in 1912, “as their injury is irreparable.”

The best guesstimate of the birthdate of Longwood’s older, bigger trees is 1798, when the Peirce family began to plant them on cleared ground.

“The trees have a way of surprising us,” Kister says. “One day we were examining a crack in a trunk and saw something metallic. Someone had come here at least 200 years ago, left a saw propped up against the trunk and forgot about it. The tree grew completely around it.”

A branch of another tree destroyed four chainsaws until it was found that portions of a branch and trunk had been filled in with concrete.

“That used to be a way to strengthen trees, though I can’t figure out why anybody did it, other than fact that concrete was cheap and you could mix it, haul it up in a bucket, and pretend you’ve solved the problem. But you didn’t solve the problem. Trees are growing. They’re constantly changing shape. To put concrete in it….” he shakes his head. “We don’t do that anymore.”

The good news is that every year Scott Wade either finds, or hears about and measures, more “new” old trees, and adds them to his list.

The bad news is that the list of trees that are gone, such as the recently removed white oak that used to stand majestically at the center of Oxford, is also growing.

“The single biggest killers of big trees in Pennsylvania are not natural disasters or predators,” he says. “They’re lawyers, insurance companies, and neighbors who should know better. They don’t bother to find out if the tree is in actual danger of falling and causing property damage. They just look at the tree and say to a township or a property owner, ‘it’s a liability risk.” It doesn’t matter if the tree is a champion or a national historic landmark. If the property owner wants it removed, it goes.”

The irony here is that it actually costs more to remove a seriously huge tree—from $12,000 to $20,000—than it does to pay an arborist to care for it.

The best way to preserve trees, Wade continues, “is to leave them alone. These trees got to be so old without fertilizers, wiring, fungicides, or anything else. I”m not saying that a tree might not be helped by these things. But, in most cases, you do best when you do least.”

Benign neglect isn’t quite enough, he adds. “People have to know what they’re growing in their own backyards.”

Sometimes, all it takes is an association with a famous person. According to legend, the Marquis de Lafayette rested during the Battle of Brandywine under a sycamore that towers 100 feet on the west side of Route 1, about 50 yards north of the entrance to the Brandywine Battlefield State Park. He mentions, by way of example, two sycamores on opposite sides of Route 1. One, called the Lafayette sycamore, towers 100 feet above the ground about 50 yards north of the entrance to the Brandywine Battlefield State Park.

Historians dispute this, pointing out that there is no way of confirming if Lafayette was anywhere near this tree during the battle.

But the story was enough to inspire people to protect the tree. Among those drawn to it was Andrew Wyeth. In his painting Pennsylvania Landscape (in the collection of the Brandywine River Museum), the sycamore is a defiantly unsentimental example of nature at its most powerful.

Andrew’s father, N.C. Wyeth, painted a different sycamore on the east side of Route 1. It stands behind the Chadds Ford Township building, resembling little more than a rude, barbarously pruned shaft.

But because it caught the elder Wyeth’s fancy, the township protected it.

Robb King has two more trees to show me. One is a tulip poplar that’s maybe 225 years old. It stands in the backyard of his boyhood home. King’s father hung a swing on one of its stout branches. Those pitted areas on the bark are where King and his brother took target practice.

“I grew up with this tree. It’s part of my childhood. I have a lot of memories connected to it. When my father thought it was too big and said he wanted to cut it down, I told him no.”

The tree stayed.

Then he takes me to spot behind the house in which he currently lives, where a small oak tree stands about 12 feet high.

It was planted from an acorn from the Dilworthtown Oak, a Penn Oak that failed to make it to the 21st century.

“This,” he says, “is for my children.”

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