Silent Witness

BY Sandra Chambers

A lack of trees in the Nebraska Territory led J. Sterling Morton a lover of nature and
editor of Nebraska’s first newspaper to propose the first tree-planting holiday called “Arbor Day.” During the first celebration on April 10 1872 more than a million trees were planted.

Arbor Day continues to be observed nationally on the last Friday in April. Because it is not a national holiday some states choose to observe Arbor Day at other times to coincide with the best tree-planting weather. This year North Carolina’s celebration will coincide with the national celebration which will take place on April 27.

In honor of Arbor Day Wrightsville Beach Magazine highlights some of our area’s most beautiful and famous trees.

The Airlie Oak

Wilmington’s most famous tree is without doubt the Airlie Oak which dates back to 1545 making it 462 years old. “It’s amazing to think that at the time the oak was just a seedling the Reformation was taking place in Europe Michaelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel and Copernicus was theorizing that the earth revolved around the sun ” says Katie Elzer-Peters head of gardens at Airlie.

The famous oak is 128 feet tall with a circumference of 21 feet 5.3 inches and a crown spread of 104 feet.

“Live oaks are evergreens ” explains Elzer-Peters “and they are epiphyte which means they serve as host to Spanish moss and resurrection fern neither of which are parasites.”

Although Airlie has 11 horticulturists on staff Elzer-Peters says they don’t do much to care for the tree. “It is native to the area and has survived all these years on its own ” she says. ”The most important thing is to stay off the root system zone. That’s why the tree is roped off — to keep people from walking in this zone.”

The famous oak plays host to many important Wilmington social events. “Since 1948 the Azalea Festival Queen’s luncheon has taken place at Airlie under the oak ” says Nicole Mitchell environmental education program manager at Airlie. “In addition we host the annual oyster roast the summer concert series Enchanted Airlie as well as the hundreds of weddings that have taken place under the oak.”

The Airlie Oak has recently garnered special attention by being named a 2007 co-winner of the North Carolina Big Champion Tree Program which recognizes and celebrates the state’s largest trees. Wilmington is also the home to its co-winner another live oak located at Oak Landing Condominiums.

New Hanover County Ranger Jonathan Ambrose took the official measurements of the Airlie Oak which he submitted to the Urban Forestry Branch of the North Carolina Service in Raleigh which in turn determines the champion trees in the state. “I encourage anyone who thinks they have a tree on their property that might qualify as a champion tree to call us to measure it ” Ambrose says.

The World’s Largest Living Christmas Tree

Almost every Christmas since 1928 a giant gnarled live oak tree on a bluff at the north end of the city overlooking the Cape Fear River has been Wilmington’s symbol of the holidays.

The tree’s designation as Wilmington’s municipal Christmas tree began as a contest initiated by Mayor J.E.L. “Hi Buddy” Wade. Schoolchildren submitted their choice of suitable trees and the winning boy and girl each received a silver dollar.

This live oak is estimated to be between 400-500 years old and somewhere between 50-75 feet tall and 75-110 feet wide at the crown. It was first decorated by Wilmington firemen using 750 lights. Today the Wilmington Parks and Recreation Divisions prepare the tree using approximately 7 000 lights and two miles of industrial-type wiring. The tree has been lit each December (except during World War II) since the tradition began.

The Old Dram Tree

The original “Dram Tree” stood two miles south of Wilmington along the eastern edge of the Cape Fear River where the river takes a sharp bend. For more than 200 years the moss-draped cypress served as a landmark welcoming incoming sailors and bidding outgoing sailors farewell.

Tradition has it that on outward voyages ships had reached full sail by the time they reached the aged tree and so the first drink or “dram” was given the sailors. On inward voyages the sailors were served a last dram before the lowering of the sails.

The dram tree was destroyed by construction of the shipyard during World War II.

The tree that now stands in Dram Tree Park near the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge was planted as a reminder of the nautical heritage of our city.

Taking Inventory on Harbor Island

Started a year and a half ago the long-awaited tree inventory of Harbor Island has finally been completed.

Tim Boyer a UNCW undergraduate student surveyed Harbor Island to assist the town with developing a tree ordinance. Boyer’s survey included criteria for the size of the tree and was limited to the front yard and public property if access could not be granted to the backyard. “I got what I could but I would not go into people’s backyards without their permission ” he says. Boyer says he did not count the palm trees as they do little for improving water quality and are not native plants.

Three areas of concern were identified in the inventory where many trees are located on undeveloped property.

The first area was the Shore Acres Company property behind Wrightsville Beach School. “They have tons of specimen and heritage trees ” Boyer says. “ That property is full of trees and they help the marsh.” The conservation zoning on that piece of property was upheld by the Board of Aldermen in January. Larry Lee the owner of the property was requesting his zoning be examined as he believes it was either rezoned improperly or not rezoned at all and should be buildable land.

Another spot is on Pelican Drive where Boyer says there is an abundance of dog feces but wax myrtle trees that hug the shoreline help filter the waste. “Those trees definitely need to be preserved ” he said. “You will see a real water quality problem there if they are not.”

The third area is around the Loop which has a vegetative buffer between it and the marshland. “If all that were taken out you would see big problems in the marsh area ” Boyer says.

Some of the tree species could not be determined as the inventory was completed during the winter months. “Once they flower it will be easier ” Boyer says.

The survey was limited to Harbor Island but may be expanded to flag large trees on the outer island at the suggestion of Alderman Kitty Brunjes. The most plentiful trees on the island were live oaks with 766 inventoried. “I would just like for those big old trees to be noted so that if construction begins a red flag will be thrown up ” Brunjes says.

The Wrightsville Beach Planning Board will continue to work on a tree ordinance this month with final approval resting in the hands of the Board of Aldermen.

The planning board has also suggested holding an awareness workshop for town residents and builders to teach the benefits of keeping and planting trees. Clayton Holmes a member of the planning board believes such a workshop would increase public awareness and acceptance. “If you have a positive approach ” he says people will listen.

Ten most plentiful trees on Harbor Island

Live Oak • 766

Eastern Red Cedar • 497

Wax Myrtle • 403

Yaupon • 163

Ligustrum • 137

Leyland Cypress • 97

Shortleaf Pine • 79

American Holly • 66

Crepe Myrtle • 61

Unidentified Deciduous

Hardwood • 33