There are over three trillion trees on our planet. In this area, trees surround us, but at one time, there were even more. It’s estimated that 75 percent of the original Piedmont watershed forests are gone. Those giants still living among us are special because they’re survivors —through the seasons, through the years and through the centuries.
What stories can these ancient ones tell us? What significant events in our history did they witness?
Today, at the Hale-Byrnes House near Stanton, Del., a gnarled sycamore tree leans against a brick wall. It’s a wonder the thing is still alive, as almost the entire trunk is hollowed out. Inside lives a stray cat in a cardboard box.
This tree was alive when George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette walked and talked under its shade on Sept. 6, 1777. It was Lafayette’s 20th birthday. Two men, two professional soldiers, two generals, preparing for war. Historians say they most likely talked of troop deployments and flanking maneuvers. But did the sycamore witness a relationship between these two men that was more human and personal?
“We celebrate Lafayette’s birthday every year here at the Hale-Byrnes House,” says Kim Burdick, historian and caretaker of the property. “He was an orphan with money who ran away from home. Lafayette was excited about the concept of America and freedom.”
Washington lost his own father when he was 11 years old. “He knew what it felt like to lose a parent—the two men had that in common,” says Burdick. “Washington had also joined the military and commanded men at a very young age. In Lafayette, he saw himself as a younger man. He never had biological children of his own. It was a father-son relationship.”
A few days after the war council at Hale-Byrnes, the British and American forces met at the Battle of Brandywine, the largest land engagement of the Revolutionary War. The British and Hessian forces commanded by Gen. William Howe defeated Washington’s troops. Lafayette performed bravely, taking a musket ball in his right leg.
On a hilltop within Brandywine Battlefield Park stands a spectacular old-growth sycamore tree 300-375 years old, with an enormous trunk. Hugging it feels like trying to wrap your arms around a grain silo. “This tree was about 100 years old when the battle occurred,” says Andrew Outten, director of education at Brandywine Battlefield Park. “The legend that Lafayette’s wound was treated under this tree is a myth. However, this was the site of a Hessian advance after they crossed Chadd’s Ford—and a colonial retreat. After the battle was over, the British camped here for four or five days and ransacked the landscape.
It took the people who lived around here about six years to recover.”
Outten pauses and looks down the hillside at the vehicles whizzing by on Route 1. “This tree witnessed the tremendous growth and evolution of our country’s transportation. Route 1 is a very historic road, one that ran from Boston to Charleston,” he says. “Conestoga wagons and horses were replaced by tractor trailers and automobiles.”
The old sycamore has been both a subject for and an inspiration to famed painter Andrew Wyeth. “Howard Pyle lived for a time in the home over in the next yard,” says Outten. “And the Gilpin house—Gen. Howe’s headquarters—became a tavern operated by Quakers.”
For trees that live a long time, it’s a matter of genetics, climate and luck. The oldest ones on the planet are usually located in extremely arid, high-elevation areas. Eastern North America is generally warm and moist and dominated by broadleaf species, according to the National Park Service.
In this region, white oaks and sycamores may live as long as 500 years, according to Scott Wade, arborist and curator of Peirce’s Park at Longwood Gardens. The maximum age of maple, elm, hickory and beech may be about 300 years, but that could be a low estimate. “We really don’t know,” says Wade. “When the original forests were cleared, no one counted rings. I’m sure there were some really old trees out there. A red cedar was found in West Virginia that was 940 years old.”
For much of our history, forests were an impediment to progress—something to be conquered and tamed. Many attempts were made to regulate timber cutting and bring about other forest-conservation measures, but the public believed the supply was inexhaustible and paid little heed. One exception was William Penn, an early conservationist and the founder of Penn’s Woods. He made clear in his land grants that those who took title to the property had to reserve one acre in forest growth for every five cleared.
At the London Grove Meeting House northwest of Kennett Square stands the officially designated Champion Great White Oak of Pennsylvania. It’s 82 feet tall, with a branch spread of 117 feet and a chest-height trunk circumference of 22 feet. “It was here when William Penn was in America in 1682,” says Tom Macaluso, owner of Macaluso Rare & Fine Used Books, Maps and Prints in Kennett Square and a member of the Quaker Meeting House at London Grove. “The Friends Meeting was established in 1714, with the present meetinghouse built in 1818. We sometimes have meetings or worship services under the tree. We take great care of it and have had the advice of professional arborists and foresters. It’s an important link to our colonial heritage.”
A significant witness tree was lost about 13 years ago in the Council Oak at Brandywine Springs State Park. It was perhaps mistakenly labeled as a meeting place for George Washington, but the oak still witnessed a great deal of history. It
shaded guests at the old Brandywine Springs Hotel since the 1820s, and later the large amusement park.
Scott Palmer, author of the Mill Creek Hundred History blog, sets the scene: “This tree saw its fair share of history. I would’ve loved to see the hotel guests, many of them wealthy Southerners, who strolled under it on their way to the mineral spring. The guest list included names like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Jefferson Davis. Later, this tree stood tall over countless amusement-park patrons and looked down on speakers like John Wanamaker and Carrie Nation,” he says.
A piece of wood from this historic tree is preserved as the gavel used to open meetings of the Friends of Brandywine Springs, according to local historian and writer Gene Castellano. He adds that the Council Oak “brought distinction, natural beauty and purpose to Brandywine Springs for over two centuries.”
Worldwide, trees older than 200 years witnessed a period of historic climate change. In 1816—labeled “the year without summer”—an eruption at Mount Tambora propelled 100 times the volume of volcanic ash into the atmosphere as Mt. St. Helens.
Contemporary written accounts describe the ice on the Brandywine in the winter of 1817 as 18 inches thick. (Two inches will hold up a person, 12 inches will hold a truck). The worldwide climate effects lasted four years.
The rings growing inside a tree are like a circular clock marking the events in our lives and in our history. “Today, trees can be cored with a specially designed boring tool, and rings can be counted in the sample,” says Longwood’s Wade. “Unfortunately, the longest coring tools are only 20 inches long, so they’re not that much help on big trees. Trees can be aged by looking at different characteristics of the tree and growing area, but it’s still an educated guess.”