Trees tell their own tales of history and life in Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial WilliamsburgHuman InterestArts and CultureHistoryPolitics and GovernmentHampton Roads

The Compton Oak on Nicholson Street in Colonial Williamsburg spreads its branches far and wide, inviting you to take a break on benches parked beneath its umbrella-like canopy.

In summer, it's probably the coolest spot in town, while its October views afford you the best seat to see the historic area's annual show of fall foliage.

Planted in the early 1930s, the picturesque oak stands 70 feet tall and 97 feet wide; its trunk circumference is an impressive 14 feet when measured at chest height.

The evergreen oak is a natural hybrid, having a live oak and an overcup oak for parents. Legend says it was found growing wild in Pungo, a southern area of Virginia Beach, and transplanted in the early 1930s. The name honors Mrs. C.C. Compton, wife of a forest service employee in Natchez, Miss., and plant lover who initially brought the tree to the attention of Charles Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard and author of "Trees of North America."

The tree's size and uniqueness makes it a stand-out specimen on Colonial Williamsburg's newest walking tour "Tall Treasures," which explores the diversity of the dozens of trees in the historic area.

"It's really a majestic tree," says Jane Alling, a Colonial Williamsburg volunteer leading the tour recently. Alling, who has been visiting the historic area since 1965 and knew she wanted to retire near it, is a former librarian for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which sponsors the annual Philadelphia Flower Show.

The tour, held 9:30 a.m. Mondays and Fridays now through Nov. 2, starts at Chowning's Tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street where red and white oaks shade the brick walkway.

"English settlers found unbelievable virgin forests as far as the eye could see," Alling says.

"Over the years, because the colonists clear cut land as the soil became depleted, especially for tobacco crops, they moved further west and cut down more trees.

"Trees were cut for open fields and crops. Many of the trees in Colonial Williamsburg were planted during the 1930s restoration."

Colonial Williamsburg is home to 15 species of oak. For the colonists, oaks were special because they provided the lumber they needed to make carriage spokes, sills, flooring, wine casks, butter churns and buckets. They also sold and shipped lumber back to England

The colonists also favored American holly — its red berries and green leaves for holiday wreaths and mantle fixings, its creamy white wood for carved inlay and piano keys.

Basswood from the American linden tree was used for wood carvings, who was known as a carver for European royalty and worked on Oxford and Cambridge universities.

While laboring colonists focused on crops and utilitarian trees, wealthy colonists wanted the unusual, like the stately crape myrtle that blooms in front of the Peyton Randolph house on Nicholson Street. Crape myrtle is native to China, but George Washington makes note of the tree in 1786, according to Alling.

"Trees like the crape myrtle were a sign of status," she says.

"You had to be wealthy to get the plant because it was imported, so you planted it in a prominent place so everyone could see and admire it."

Walking past the Compton oak and the crape myrtle, Alling takes the tour group to the Palace Green where two rows of catalpas, planted 100 feet apart, frame

a view of the Governor's Palace.

In the grand sense of showmanship admired in colonial times, the catalpas give the palace a snowy white show in spring when thousands of orchid-like flower panicles hang from the trees, often peeking beneath the heart-shaped, bright-green leaves. Come fall, long bean-like pods hang like seasonal ornaments.

"It's a grand entrance to the palace that reflected the governor's importance," says Alling.

10 great trees

Les Parks, general manager at Smithfield Gardens on Route 17, Suffolk, discusses the best trees for Hampton Roads during a program at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6, at the Fred Huette Center, Ghent area of Norfolk. Free for members, $5 for nonmembers; register in advance at 441-2513 or fhcgarden@cox.net.

Here is a list of Parks' favorite trees; contact him at 238-2511.

•Redbuds (Cercis canadensis and others) —This small native tree offers great spring color, and takes some light shade, making it a good alternative for problem-prone dogwoods.

•Vitex or chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) — This small native tree thrives in sunny hot areas and is drought tolerant, plus it has showy blue flowers in summer forbees and butterflies.

•River birch (Betula nigra) — If you are looking for a fast-growing tree with attractive exfoliating bark, this is a good tree; be prepared to site it in a moist location or plan to give it lots of water.

•Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) — Ginkgo may be a slow-growing living fossil, but it has great yellow fall color and will live for many generations.

•Black gum or tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) — This is one of our unsung natives that is easy to grow, offers good shade and has fantastic fall color.

•Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) — The redwood is another living fossil with good fall color and nice texture; it is tall without taking up a lot of width, but grows rapidly.

•Red maple (Acer rubrum) — Red maples are easy to grow, fast growers and one of the best trees for fall foliage.

•Willow oak (Quercus phellos) — Likely the fastest of our native oaks, this tree grows straight and symmetrical when young, broadening with age; the leaves are not a pain to rake.

•Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) — Seen most often near local waterways and swamps, this tree is just as happy under normal yard conditions. It is fast growing, has great fall color and tolerates wind.

•Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) — Yes they are messy, yes they get big, but the flowers are heavenly; they are easy to grow, resist wind and look great in other people's yards.

•Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia species and hybrids) — There is no other tree that flowers for months, has great fall foliage, has beautiful exfoliating bark, looks good in all four seasons and is so very well adapted to our climate.

Tree tips

•Pick the appropriate size tree for the space.

•Think about longevity when you plant trees. Bradford pears last only 30 years. If you want trees for grandchildren, plant oaks.

•When you prepare the soil, don't over fertilize.

•If trees are being irrigated, they do best with drip applications, not overhead sprinklers.

•If you want lawn under your tree, don't plant beech, maple or magnolia. — Wesley Greene, garden historian with Colonial Williamsburg

Tree tour

Colonial Williamsburg's new walking tour, "Tall Treasures," focuses on the diversity of trees that grow along Duke of Gloucester and Nicholson streets. The one-hour tour begins at 9:30 a.m. Mondays and Fridays now through Nov. 7; advance registration is required. Admission is a Colonial Williamsburg annual pass ($58.95 for adults, $28.50 ages 6-17) hotel guest pass, or Good Neighbors pass ($10 adults living in Williamsburg, James City County and the Bruton District of York County; ages 6-17 are free). Purchase tickets at colonialwilliamsburg.com or 800-HISTORY.

•The book "Plants of Colonial Williamsburg" describes 200 trees, shrubs, flowers and herbs and their historical link to colonial times; brief biographies of early plants people explain the roles they played in horticulture history. $12.95 at williamsburgmarketplace.com or 800-446-9240.

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