A resurrection in the treetops

Published 9:14 pm Tuesday, May 2, 2017

By Susan and Biff Andrews

There’s a resurrection going on at Historic St. Luke’s Church in Smithfield. What was once dead is now a vibrant entity.

The parish, founded in 1632, is no more, but the building and its contents, the cemetery and the history have been revived and are alive and well, largely through the efforts of Executive Director Todd Balance.

Email newsletter signup

Tours are given daily, concerts and weddings take place and educational events bring the church back to life. So our recent tour of the 100-acre grounds may be understandable.

A group of Master Gardeners and Master Naturalists was guided through the trees on the 385-year-old property by big tree hunter Byron Carmean and Virginia Cooperative Extension agent and forester Neil Clark as part of Mr. Balance’s efforts to bring the marvels of the site to the outside world.

And the trees are surely impressive. Many, if not most, are black walnut — so highly valued by woodworkers, but even prettier “on the hoof.” Mixed among them are some mature persimmons with their knobbly, knobbly bark and bittersweet fruit.

There are old-growth beech trees, as well, many of them hollow. And there are the oaks — pin oaks and willow oaks, as well as the big daddies, red oak and white oak, some hundreds of years old.

Pines are present, too — not just loblolly (which represent 90 percent of all pines in our area), but short needle pine (usually found in dry, sandy soil) and Virginia pine, with all its knots, making it pretty but not strong.

There were southern sugar maples, with their small leaves, so pretty in fall. And red cedars, so fragrant when used for closets and the chests that are now a thing of the past. And hickory trees, with their heavy and hard wood, not shagbark, but bitternut hickory.

The smaller ornamental trees were also well represented — not just the redbud and dogwood so beloved by Virginians (now a month past bloom. There were fringetrees in full bloom — I’d never seen one — with feathery white fragrant blossoms, their roots supposedly a cure for liver ailments.)

There was even a boxwood tree. Most people think of boxwood as the small, slow-growing shrubs of formal gardens, but those are English boxwood. This was an American boxwood, 20 feet tall and proud of it.

But the highlight of the day for me came when Byron Carmean spotted a profusion of ferns growing on the highest branches of an old, old oak. These were resurrection ferns. They are epiphytes — air feeders — like Spanish moss.

I’ve seen them in South Carolina and Florida, but did not understand them and never thought to see them this far north.

The reason they’re called “resurrection” ferns is that they “die” in dry conditions. First they go brown and wilt, and then they shrivel up into a mass of gray leaves. But with the first rain of any kind, they spring back to a lush, vibrant green.

The secret? The pores that absorb the rain are the gray matter on the undersides of the curled fronds. As soon as it rains, they drink in the moisture and are “reborn.” New life.

Resurrection — for ferns, as well as for historic places, 17th-century organs, hammered silver baptismal fonts and headstones. Contact Mr. Balance at 357-3367 for tours and information.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.