Massive red oak suffered from disease

Published 10:55 pm Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Crews from Chesapeake Bay Tree Inc. cut down a red oak in a corner of Cedar Hill Cemetery on Tuesday. The tree had become the victim of age and disease in recent years and was deemed a danger to the historic cemetery and the folks who visit there.

Suffolk lost one of its oldest citizens on Tuesday, as a crew from Chesapeake cut down all but the main trunk of the huge red oak that towered over a corner of Cedar Hill Cemetery.

Nobody knows exactly how old the tree was, though some have speculated it could have sprouted between 200 and 300 years ago.

Chris Mowery, owner of Chesapeake Bay Tree Inc., the company hired to remove the tree after it was discovered to be diseased and dangerous, believes the age is closer to 100. He hopes to know for certain sometime today, when his crew — weather permitting — fells the remaining 30 feet or so of trunk and he can take a look at the rings on the main section.

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Whatever the age, the tree was an incredible example of its species, Mowery said.

“That oak tree has been around a long time,” he said Tuesday after his five-man crew quit work for the second day of topping the 80- to 100-foot tall tree and hauling pieces away. “You don’t see many trees like that in this area anymore. It was probably in the top 1 percent of big trees in the state of Virginia.”

Located in a rear corner of the cemetery, the great oak had long been protected from the wind by cedars that had been planted in the cemetery, Mowery explained. The protected location allowed it to grow well and to quickly rise above everything around it, receiving unfiltered sunlight, which probably spurred it to grow even faster.

But that quick growth could have laid the foundation for the tree’s eventual demise, he said.

With limbs that were almost longer than its height, the tree long lived at the edge of structural soundness. A limb as big as a tree broke off in August, revealing a cavity within the trunk. As workers cut the top from the tree on Tuesday, they discovered that one section of trunk four feet in diameter had only a two-inch section of actual wood — the rest was cavity.

Mowery said he’s seen similar situations a lot since Hurricane Isabel hit the area in 2003. Trees that sustained damage then, he said, sometimes have been unable to fully recover in the intervening years, entering a “downward spiral” that includes water damage, decay and disease.

“One thing leads to another,” he said.

“There was no other thing that we could do for this tree,” he added.

Suffolk spokesperson Debbie George said Mowery’s company was the second to tell the city the great oak was a lost cause. Officials from Windsor Tree Service, which performed the work in August after the limb fell, came to the same conclusion, she said.

“The disease was so far progressed that the tree was a danger to the cemetery and the people who use it,” George said.

According to Mowery, his workers have already moved 150,000 to 200,000 pounds worth of the tree, with the largest portion still remaining.

He has an expert in fine woodworking coming from North Carolina to observe the final cuts and see if any of the wood can be used for high-end furniture and tabletops.

And Mowery plans to “make a few big slices from the stump cut” in case the city wants to preserve the tree’s memory, perhaps in a museum.

“This is the biggest tree probably that I’ve ever cut,” he said.