Tall Trees of Carter’s Grove
Colby B. Rucker
Carter’s Grove, located on the James River east of Williamsburg, Virginia, is one of America’s best-known examples of Georgian and Georgian Revival architecture. The surrounding grounds and acreage have received less attention, although several very handsome tuliptrees figure prominently in photographs of the mansion.
The estate is owned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. A visitor’s center and parking area are located beyond a large heavily wooded ravine to the west of the mansion grounds. Visitors cross a concrete footbridge spanning the ravine. Constructed with minimal disturbance to the ravine, this site provides an excellent view of a baldcypress stand and nearby hardwoods.
A pleasant woodland overlook is down a short path from the visitor’s center, but it appears the woodland itself has received minimal notice. It is said that students from William and Mary College have done some botanical studies, including a mistletoe study.
It is interesting to speculate on the history of the site. We may suppose that the woodland influenced the choice of the name, “Carter’s Grove,” as was the case at “Tulip Hill,” “Poplar Forest,” and other colonial estates in Maryland and Virginia. Although the terrain of the ravine system allowed the site to escape clearing for tobacco, it appears that many trees were cut for farm timbers, and later for construction of the mansion in the 1750’s. This disturbance resulted in a preponderance of tulip poplar. The presence of very large multiple-trunked specimens suggests that the smaller second growth poplars were also valued for lumber. The age of these trees, and the apparent absence of smaller multiple-trunked trees seem to indicate that no logging has taken place for many years, perhaps not since before the Civil War.
Although the availability of a good woodlot was important in running a large farm, and most woodlands in the tidewater region were repeatedly stripped for additional income, this site seems to have escaped heavy cutting for either purpose. The presence of many large black walnuts suggests that later owners of Carter’s Grove did not need to plunder this woodland for spending money. Also, protection of the site for reasons of aesthetics or wildlife may have been a factor, and would reflect the cultural interests of the owners.
While these observations are rather hypothetical, the stature of this woodland is indeed impressive. Comparisons with the James Madison Landmark Forest, a National Natural Landmark in Orange County, Virginia, would seem appropriate. There are also similarities to a woodland, once a deer park and never cleared, at “Cedar Park,” a historic site in southern Anne Arundel County, Maryland.
I wish to express my gratitude to Colonial Williamsburg for kindly considering my application, and granting me access to the woodland to conduct a study on a day closed to visitors. The following survey and measurements were taken on July 15, 2002.
The ravine system is much divided, and extends to the James River. Only the upper portion, to perhaps 100 yards below the footbridge, was examined. The surrounding field/woodland interfaces and upland/lowland interfaces provide access to sunlight throughout much of the site, as do windthrows, creating a stand with trees of varied sizes, much like the concept of old-growth forest. Large dead snags and fallen trunks are typical of old-growth, and pileated woodpeckers were seen. A thick understory of pawpaw increases the density of the stand, providing secluded habitat for birds and other wildlife.
By their height and abundance, tuliptrees dominate the woodland. Northern red oaks, black oaks and bitternuts are competitive on ridges, where the elevation and well-drained sandy soils are to their advantage. Exposure is also a factor, with beech, northern red oak and black oak being more dominant on the east-facing slopes, and some hackberry, willow oak and southern red oak being present on the warmer west-facing slopes. The moist lowland corridors are important for sycamore, red maple, and baldcypress. Overall, the ravine system is south facing, which is probably a factor favoring the baldcypress.
Several very fine examples of baldcypress were measured. The large tree near the stream below the bridge is a very significant specimen, and the largest tree seen. Its trunk is not buttressed, and 17 feet 11 inches in circumference at breast height. With a height of 144.7 feet, it is taller than any baldcypress accurately measured in the United States, including such important sites as the Congaree Swamp National Monument in South Carolina.
By averaging the maximum height of the ten tallest species, a convenient height index can be obtained for a given site. Although only a small portion of the woodland was examined, the species measured provided an overall index of 122.02 feet. This is very high for a coastal plain site lacking major terrain influences.
The following trees were measured on July 15, 2002, using single triangulation above an adjustable pole extended from the central basal contour at the tree’s base (“where the acorn sprouted”) to eye level. The height of the triangle was determined by measuring the length of the hypotenuse with a laser rangefinder backed to a whole number, and multiplying by the sine of the angle measured with a standard forestry clinometer. The pole length, to the nearest half-inch, was then added to the height of the triangle, together with any basal adjustments for elevations between the base of the pole and the central basal contour.
Circumference was measured to the nearest half inch at breast height, or 4.5 feet, taken above the central basal contour. Double-hearted or multiple-trunked trees were not included. Although tall trees were of interest in determining the effect of height upon forest diversity and structure, the modest acreage of the area studied limited the application of this goal. In view of the time available, trees were selected for diversity of species, with emphasis on both unusually tall and large-trunked specimens.
Species Height CBH Exposure Habitat
Tuliptree Liriodendron tulipifera 147.7’ 9’ 2.0” E low slope
Baldcypress Taxodium distichum 144.7’ 17’ 11.0” SW lowland
American sycamore Platanus occidentalis 140.1’ N/A SW floodplain
Bitternut Carya cordiformis 125.2’ 7’ 6.0” E mid slope
Black walnut Juglans nigra 119.5’ 6’ 0” W mid slope
Northern red oak Quercus rubra 118.1’ 11’ 2.0” E upland
Black oak Quercus velutina 110.5’ 10’ 3.0” E upland
Swamp chestnut oak Quercus michauxii 106.7’ 10’ 9.0” W upper slope
American elm Ulmus americana 104.5’ 6’ 5.5” E upper slope
Southern red oak Quercus falcata 103.2’ 14’ 3.5” W upper slope
Willow oak Quercus phellos 99.9’ 10’ 9.0” W upper slope
American beech Fagus grandifolia 98.4’ 7’ 4.0” W upland
Red maple Acer rubrum 97.0’ 6’ 10.5” S lowland
Hackberry Celtis occidentalis 96.7’ 7’ 11.0” W upper slope
White oak Quercus alba 93.8’ 15’ 3.0” E upper slope
Additional Noteworthy Specimens
Tuliptree 143.1’ 15’ 1.5” N mid slope
Tuliptree 122.4’ 16’ 11.0” W upland
Baldcypress 114.4’ 15’ 11.5” W low swale
American sycamore 131.8’ 13’ 0.5” S upland
Black walnut 117.9’ 10’ 6.5” W upper slope
White ash Fraxinus americana
Blackgum Nyssa sylvatica
Black locust Robinia pseudoacacia
Persimmon Diospyros virginiana
Sassafras Sassafras albidum
American holly Ilex opaca
Flowering dogwood Cornus florida
Redbud Cercis canadensis
Pawpaw Asimina triloba
Spicebush Lindera benzoin