Is there anything more beautiful than a majestic, full-grown hardwood tree? If I spot a particularly magnificent specimen, I’ll often stop the car, get out, and have a really good look at it. I usually have no trouble identifying the species, especially in the Northeast, where I live. But for facts about an unmarked big tree—its age, height, circumference, history, and so on—I turn to the Internet, which, thanks to a dedicated band of tree-loving individuals and organizations, is a fantastic source of such information. Also, before visiting an area I don’t know well, I’ll surf the arboreal websites, blogs, and social media pages to learn what important hardwood trees in the region are worth seeking out. So far, I’ve never been steered wrong.
Knowing I’d be in Hartford, Connecticut, a few summers ago, I did a quick Google search and soon landed on Connecticut’s Notable Trees, a beautiful website maintained by the Connecticut College Arboretum. There’s an up-to-date database that includes records of an astonishing 3,396 individual trees in the state. Information for each tree includes size, location, ownership, and condition. I quickly learned that the state’s biggest hardwood—not the tallest, but the largest in volume—was the Pinchot Sycamore, located in Simsbury, a short drive from Harford. This champion specimen has a trunk almost 28 feet around and is 104 feet tall with an average canopy diameter of 147 feet. It’s taken the sycamore at least 200 and maybe more than 300 years to reach these magisterial dimensions. As they say of three-star restaurants in the Michelin Guides, the Pinchot Sycamore proved exceptional and worth a special journey.
Curious to know what the largest tree in my hometown might be, I logged on to the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation website and went to the Great Trees page. It turns out that the honor goes to a 300-year-old tulip tree in Cloves Lake Park on Staten Island. With a height of 110 feet, a trunk diameter of more than 7 feet, and an average canopy spread of 63 feet, it’s described as “possibly the largest single-trunked great tree in the city.” Tulip trees, named for their distinctive tulip-shape flowers, are sometimes known as yellow poplars. They are actually part of the magnolia family and among the tallest hardwoods in North America, capable of growing to more than 200 feet. The one on Staten Island, a soaring, shapely specimen, can be viewed unobstructed thanks to its park location. Believe me, it’s a glorious sight.
Next time I’m in South Carolina, I plan to visit Middleton Place, an 18th-century plantation house museum near Charleston. A National Historic Landmark, the 65-acre property is home to one of America’s oldest and most interesting landscaped gardens. In it grows the Middleton Oak, a large live oak estimated to be more than 900 years old. One of my favorite arboreal organizations, the Native Tree Society, has made extensive study of this extraordinary hardwood specimen. As they write on their website: “The Middleton Oak is a tree with a trunk that is fat, at 10.44 foot diameter, and relatively short, at 67 feet. However it has a massive canopy, with several branches many feet in diameter, extending outward to form a broad low crown.” Photographs confirm the museum website’s claim: “With the Ashley River in the background, the unique and natural beauty of the ancient oak contrasts with the manicured gardens to offer a place of uncommon magnificence.” I can’t wait to see for myself.