Remarkable Tree Places - Montpelier


Montpelier is the home of many exceptionally fine trees, some because of
their historic significance, some for the unusual properties of their species, and others because of their age and size. The following are the more outstanding of those that deserve to have attention brought to them for the benefit of anyone who appreciates fine trees.

Cedar of Lebanon
(Cedrus Lebani)
(click link for larger photo)

At the entrance to the Montpelier garden is the largest of several cedars of Lebanon, this one certainly planted during James Madison’s lifetime. This statement is based on data collected from another cedar of Lebanon on the grounds which fell from the weight of ice on it during a 1995 ice storm. That tree had a circumference one inch larger than our subject tree and was found to have 173 annual rings on one side of the trunk. Subtracting 173 from 1995 suggests that the two trees in this account were planted in the early 1820s or about fifteen years before Madison’s death. A wafer cut from the fallen tree was sent to Dr. Jay Stipes at Virginia Tech for further study. A local tradition said that the three largest cedars of Lebanon were a gift from France to James Madison presented by Lafayette during his visit to Montpelier in 1824. Unfortunately, we know of no proof of that tradition. The cedar of Lebanon was the tree said to have been chosen by Solomon for providing the timbers to build the Temple. While there are some botanists who assign species status to a fourth form of Cedrus, I think it is generally accepted that there are only three species of the genus Cedrus in the world, the cedar of Lebanon (C. lebani), the Deodar cedar (C deodara) from the Himalayas, and the Atlas cedar (C. atlantica) from the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. All three of these species can be viewed on the Montpelier mansion lawn. Many of our trees commonly called “cedars” are really junipers.

Common Chinafir (Cunninghamia lanceolata)
(click link for larger photo)

The Chinafir is a tree prized for its perfect conical form, which makes it a very desirable specimen for estate landscaping and for some unusual properties of its timber. The tree is highly prized in China for many uses, especially for coffins because of its great resistance to rot when in contact with moist soil. Also, it is favored because when felled the roots will sprout shoots which assure a future supply of timber.

Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)
(click link for larger photo)

The conical tree at the bottom of the garden is often referred to as a living fossil and for a good reason. It is a dawn redwood, initially discovered and described for the first time in 1941 by a Japanese paleobotanist named Miki based on its fossil remains found in Japanese coal beds. Also in 1941, a Chinese scientist found a living specimen of the tree in a remote section of west central China. This species has been living for fifty million years! And at one time, some millions of years ago, it lived in the U.S. In 1947 the Arnold Arboretum funded a very successful expedition by Chinese scientists to collect seeds. A large quantity of these seeds were shipped to Arnold in early 1948. Dr. E. D. Merrill, Director of the arboretum, immediately shared some 600 packets of the seeds with numerous institutions and individuals throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world. The tree is deciduous, so in the winter there are only the bare structural members visible which aren’t impressive; but in foliage it is a very attractive specimen with a remarkable life history. Its growth rate is fast (50 ft. in 15 to 20 years), and it retains its feathery, pyramidal growth habit as it matures. The predecessor to this particular tree was blasted to bits by a bolt of lightning.

Spanish Fir (Abies pinsapo)
(click link for larger photo)

Spanish fir is native to the Sierra Nevada mountains of very southern Spain. It is rare even in Spain, being confined to a few especially favorable high elevation sites. “The specific name ‘pinsapo’ comes from a combination of the first three or four letters of an old name ‘Pinus saponia’ referring to the fact that twigs of this so-called ‘pine’ could be soaked in water to make a kind of soap substitute. (1) This specimen at Montpelier is, in the writer’s experience, an unusually shapely one. The short, stubby “needles” attract considerable attention from visitors who take the tour of the many fine specimens of evergreen trees on the mansion lawn.

Several years ago a staff member of the National Arboretum visited Montpelier to help verify the identification of two or three unknown specimens. During the course of the tour, he paused to take in the view across the lawn and said, “I don’t think the Montpelier staff realizes what you have here. This is the finest collection of mature evergreens I have ever seen in the Eastern United States.” Many of the specimens are believed to be approximately 100 years old, having apparently been planted by the duPont family soon after it arrived at Montpelier in 1902.

Another unique feature of the collection of trees at Montpelier is the 200 acre old growth forest which lies just south of the rear lawn. Very soon after Montpelier became a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a professional forester sent information to the National Park Service (NPS) regarding the unusual characteristics of that particular section of the forest and submitted an application for a designation as a National Natural Landmark. Following an examination and report to NPS by an expert biologist selected by the NPS stating that:

“The Montpelier Estate Natural Area Tract is the best example of a mature forest dominated primarily by Liriodendron tulipifera (tulip poplar), Lindera bezoin/{benzoin) in the Piedmont of eastern North America.--------Nothing comparable in age, size, and condition of this old growth forest has been found in the Piedmont of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, --The sites listed for Virginia with a first priority in the Radford and Martin 1975 Landmark report are not comparable in age, size, and/or community composition.”

Consequently, that 200 acre section of the Montpelier forests was formally designated a National Natural Landmark in 1987. Several trails run through this site, and tours are periodically scheduled and publicized in advance.

Finally, there are five huge tulip poplar trees in a perfect row at more or less equidistant spaces from each other. Shortly after acquiring the property, the National Trust for Historic Preservation employed surveyors to locate the original boundaries of Montpelier. When the survey was completed, it was discovered that those trees were located precisely on the southwestern property boundary established when James Madison’s grandfather, Ambrose Madison, purchased the property in 1723. Since the location is a considerable distance from the mansion’s vicinity and in a remote area of the forest, this bit of history is not included in a tour. But it is another way in which trees play an important role in the rich and fascinating history of Montpelier.

Where else in Virginia can one be so impressed by the role trees can play in the beauty and value of property?

8 July 2006
Ted Scott
4248 Grattan Price Dr.
Harrisonburg, VA 22801

(1) Ware, Stewart, The College of William & Mary. Private communication to T.G. Scott, Jr.