James Madison Estate, Montpelier Memorial Forest   Will Blozan
  Nov 06, 2005 21:20 PST 
Montpelier Memorial Forest, Orange, VA 10/17/2005

On the way back from the ENTS gathering and Forest Summit Meeting Jess
Riddle and I wanted to stop at a site in Virginia to measure some trees. We
are desperately lacking in tree data from the state. Colby has a few trees
from Williamsburg and ENTS gathered some data from Sweetbriar College and
James Madison's Montpelier Estate in 2000 (?). I suggested we return to
Montpelier to gather more data and replace the notes that were stolen from
me during the last trip. So off we went.

Our enthusiasm gathered as we crossed through Shenandoah National Park, Jess
muttering, "Oh, that will go 140 feet easy." and other such teaser comments
as I tried to stay between the lines. The approach to the historic site was
lined with fantastic oaks and hickories, which in turn added to the tease I
had laid on Jess with the promise of untold tall monsters lurking in areas
ENTS had not seen before. New too, was our fresh eyes and outlooks for a
broader and more complete picture of the forest. The previous ENTS visit did
little to sample the site and profile the depth or diversity of the forest.
We were stoked!

We parked in a temporary lot off the front lawn of the main mansion. The
house was under renovations so it was all but hidden. But the house was of
no interest once we opened the car doors to an ancient landscape of native
and introduced trees. Some of the trees were likely original plantings
nearly 200 years old. Some of the ancient firs and spruce appeared to be
melting into the lawn with draperies of unpruned lower limbs. Jess
immediately measured a tall eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), of
which many fine specimens were spotted. I turned my focus to an ancient
reiterated fir which I believe may be a white fir (Abies alba- BVP help us
out!). This tree was so old the limbs were running along the ground and
sending up new trunks that made the spread quite wide.

Deciding where to go was the hardest part since we had come for the native
forest in the memorial grove. But, being newly diagnosed with "Gymnophilia",
I was drawn uncontrollably to big, ancient Oriental (Picea orientalis) and
Norway (Picea abies) spruce and four types of Cedrus- the true cedars, some
over 15' in girth. More Abies were to be found including one I had never
seen before- Spanish fir (Abies pinsapo). This huge tree had an immense
spread, and like the other firs, was full of new cones. Another section had
some fine specimens of Sawara false-cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera- most
new state records) and incense cedar (Lebocedrus decurrens). I even spotted
and measured a coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens-my first ever!). New
ENTS records were found at nearly every turn for the exotic species!

Huge natives were interspersed in the planted landscape. Giant black walnut,
persimmon, red cedar, white oak, and tuliptree were scattered about, some of
which were close to state records. Perhaps most impressive was a 17'5" cbh
black walnut that stood 101' tall and had an average spread of 108.5'. Long
spread was an impressive 121.7'.

Exotic hardwoods were equally impressive. We measured a huge English oak
(Quercus robur) that turns out to have been a current state champion. A
giant Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollisima) was close to being a new state

We finally exhausted the more notable exotic species, although wished we had
measured more boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), some of which were 25" in girth
at 4.5'. Conveniently, we ended our exotic tree tour at the trail head for
the memorial grove. Immediately we spotted a nice grove of black walnut, one
of which at 129.8' would be the tallest measured all day. Since ENTS
previously focused primarily on tuliptree on the last visit we focused on
other species. Hickories quickly became a focus as did fine oaks. The forest
was heavily dominated by oak and tuliptree, with hickories and some puny
beeches comprising the majority of the other associates. In contrast to
virtually every other site in the entire east, red maple was essentially
absent- neither Jess nor I can recall a single individual except one tree on
the road on the way out of the property. As rich as the site was, red or
sugar maple should have been present. Box-elder (Acer negundo) was the only
maple species present and it was quite pathetic at that. Spicebush (Lindera
benzoin) and paw paw (Asimina triloba) dominated the shrub layer, with
spicebush nearly omnipresent throughout. Paw paw was common in the wet
fringes of the small stream and reached a record height (ENTS documented)
for the species.

The memorial forest is touted as old-growth and existing undisturbed since
Madison's time (he died in 1836). I would seriously doubt any claim to
old-growth forest, and furthermore challenge that very few-if any- of the
trees in the memorial grove were even old enough to have been there in 1836.
If they were, they were very small, and very few trees exhibited any age
characteristics that suggested otherwise. The site was crisscrossed with
roads, and glass-filled trash dumps made measuring girths a sketchy ordeal.
Carcasses of discarded cars were also a major source of "coarse debris". To
me, the forest was very old second-growth and the primary canopy cohorts
appeared even-aged. A single American chestnut log was found, and cut stumps
of huge red oaks revealed only 120 growth rings. My guess would be 160 years
old on the vast majority of the canopy trees with a few relics being perhaps
220 years old. Spunky northern red oaks were certainly not more than 80
years old and are likely entering the canopy from past light gaps from
storms or logging. Cut red cedar stumps were common on the ridge indicating
open or lightly forested conditions. The oaks in the area were large but not
old, and exhibited rapid growth rates and young bark.

Regardless, the forest is impressive; though full of invasive exotic plants
(the staff and/or volunteers have done a great job though in slowing the
advance since our last visit). It is a heavily disturbed forest, but one
that is still diverse and arboreally vibrant. I am sure Lee would confirm a
massive exotic earthworm invasion since the ground was lacking litter and
the surface was basically just dirt. Herbs were scarce and had likely
succumbed to the worms. The canopy was not free from exotics either, as
sweet cherry (Prunus avium) reached the canopy (at 116' tall no less!) and
trifoliate orange (Poncirus trifolia) formed a seriously impenetrable tangle
in the understory (may have been a cheap fence at one time).

So, after 7 straight hours (that's right, no stops or lunch) we measured the
height and girth of 98 trees of 36 species. Of course we "roughed out" many
others but only chose to detail 98 trees. Our mission to gather tree data
from Virginia was well underway and successful! We ended up with a Rucker
Index of 135.07 for the following species:

Species                                    Girth                Height

Tuliptree                                    12.29                168.08

Northern red oak var. rubra          7.58                  149.77

Pignut hickory                           8.83                  142.62

Chestnut oak                             10.08                132.43

Green ash                                 6.66                  129.83

Black oak                                  9.58                  129.48

Black walnut                              7.70                  129.23

White oak                                 8.91                  129.17

Shortleaf pine                            4.90                  120.13

American sycamore                   10.66                120.01

Rucker 10 index=                                             135.07

Here are some other notable trees, the largest and tallest listed by
species. *= ENTS height record, ^ indicates potential VA State Champion, #
indicates potential National Champion. (Sorry, the formatting got really
screwed on this table and I am too tired to fix it right now.)

American holly  6.50  65.39

American sycamore  10.66  120.01

Atlas cedar*^  11.75  90.88

Black gum  6.60  111.75

Black oak  10.41  118.83

Black oak  9.24  124.94

Black oak  9.58  129.48

Black walnut^  17.42  100.52

Black walnut  7.70  129.23

Blue atlas cedar*  8.84  82.23

Cedar of Lebanon^  15.58  53.22

Cedar of Lebanon*  12.20  80.07

Chestnut oak  13.80  119.79

Chestnut oak  10.08  132.43

Chinese chestnut  13.59  52.85

Coastal redwood  2.17  34.95

Common paw paw  1.20  49.96

Common paw paw*^  1.30  53.28

Common persimmon  6.50  n/a

Common winterberry#*^  1.41  16.90

Eastern red cedar  12.04  61.49

Eastern red cedar  6.40  82.23

English oak  16.00  56.43

English oak  8.50  66.58

Green ash  6.66  129.83

Incense cedar^  7.42  64.73

Mockernut  7.00  119.53

Northern red oak var. rubra  13.66  139.60

Northern red oak var. rubra  11.66  145.00

Northern red oak var. rubra  14.18  146.74

Northern red oak var. rubra  6.50  149.64

Northern red oak var. rubra  7.58  149.77

Norway spruce  12.92  90.53

Oriental arborvitae^*  5.71  40.29

Oriental spruce^  10.18  87.50

Pignut hickory  9.33  129.76

Pignut hickory  7.75  140.88

Pignut hickory^  8.83  142.62

Rocky Mountain white fir^*  6.25  73.83

Saucer magnolia  3.09  45.62

Sawara false-cypress (typical)^  7.33  70.65

Sawara false-cypress 'plumosa'^*  8.76  91.22

Sawara false-cypress 'squarrosa'^  7.80  72.65

Shortleaf pine^  8.91  111.36

Shortleaf pine  4.90  120.13

Southern red oak  7.60  116.09

Spanish fir*  10.50  71.72

Sweet cherry*  4.90  116.20

Tuliptree  22.50  97.00

Tuliptree  21.07  122.92

Tuliptree  12.33  160.12

Tuliptree  10.25  166.99

Tuliptree  11.41  167.33

Tuliptree  12.29  168.08

White fir^  8.51  68.66

White fir^  7.34  80.58

White oak  16.34  n/a

White oak  8.91  129.17

Photos are forthcoming!

Will and Jess
Re: James Madison Estate, Montpelier Memorial Forest   ad-@ldeo.columbia.edu
  Nov 07, 2005 03:56 PST 

Dear Will at al.,

You are probably correct about the ages in the Montpelier Forest. Dan
Druckenbrod, Dave Stahle, Matt Therrell and others cored in the Montpelier
National Natural Landmark Forest. Not sure if this is the same forest. And, I
beleive they were only allowed to core dead [and perhaps dying] white oak
trees. Ages ranged from less than 80 to ~250 yrs of age.


I've worked in the Montgomery Place estate in the Hudson Valley that was also
touted to be old-growth. The signal from the tree-rings show that it was
cut-over just prior to being sold to the estate owner in the early 1820s. Some
things never change, I guess. There is a map showing continuous forest at MP
since ~1820s. Tree architecture, stand stucture, tree ages and tree-ring
patterns, however, indicate the forest was cut periodically [sometimes hard]
over the last two centuries.

They have some beauty trees in there, though.

Hope this helps,
RE: James Madison Estate, Montpelier Memorial Forest   Robert Leverett
  Nov 07, 2005 06:56 PST 

Will and Jess,

   Congratulations. You all have broken the drought for Virginia. The
tulips are awesome. But so is that northern red. Are you going to
prepare a report for the Montpelier Memorial Forest? I'd hope they would
like to know what their forest contains, beyond just a species listing.
Adding a site with a Rucker index of 135.07 ain't no small potatoes.
Given the abundance of super trees, I'd bet a few more outings and
you've be up to 136 or 137.

James Madison Landmark Forest   http://www.montpelier.org/history/forest.cfm