Which enigma is greater; the age of the national champion or how it got to Virginia?

The mystery of Patrick Henry’s osage-orange: which enigma is greater; the age of the national champion or how it got to Virginia?

Nancy Ross Hugo

It’s hard to upstage Patrick Henry, patriot and orator extraordinaire, but many visitors to Patrick Henry’s last home in Brookneal, Virginia, are as interested in the tree in his front yard as they are in the patriot.

The tree, an osage-orange (Maclura pomifera), dominates the grounds at the Red Hill National Memorial the way Henry must have dominated a debate. At 321 inches in girth, 60 feet in height, and 85 feet in spread, it’s the largest known of its species in the country, but it’s also a shapely tree that holds its hefty branches with surprising grace. What most accounts for this tree’s charisma, however, is the sense of antiquity it conveys.

“That’s an OLD tree,” one tourist commented to me on a day when our paths crossed beneath the tree. Not only does the tree’s size suggest it has occupied this site for centuries, but its bark screams “Age!” Bumpy, soccer-ball-sized burls punctuate one side; elsewhere it’s crisscrossed with deep fissures that create bold basketweave patterns.

Small wonder then that legends have grown up like weeds around this tree and that speculation is rampant about the tree’s age. Red Hill literature describes the tree as the largest and oldest of its species in the country and suggests it is “between 200 and 350 years old.” Other sources say, variously, that Patrick Henry’s physician wept under it when Henry died, that the tree was grown from plant material brought back from the Lewis and Clark expeditions and given to Henry’s daughter, and that Henry played his violin under the tree.

So many good stories surround this tree that I was at first reluctant to accept an assignment to run the legends to ground, try to sort fact from fiction, and, if possible, establish the tree’s age. “Don’t ruin the legend,” Jeff Meyer, director of AMERICAN FORESTS’ Historic Tree Nursery and author of America’s Famous and Historic Trees, warned when I called to ask the source of the Lewis and Clark story he’d reported in his book.

I also wanted to tell him a dendrochronologist (a scientist who accurately dates trees using tree rings) was going to examine the tree. I fully expected to wind up in the role of spoilsport, but fortunately, truth is sometimes more interesting than fiction.

The Lewis and Clark connection and the Patrick Henry connection, of course, could not both be true. William Clark did send osage-orange cuttings, then osage-orange seeds, east from St. Louis in 1804 and 1806, respectively, but Patrick Henry died in 1799.

The tree’s original range also remains in dispute. Some experts say it inhabited a narrow swath from southwest Arkansas and southeast Oklahoma through east-central Texas. The name comes from the Osage Indians of that region, who, like other Native Americans, valued the tree for its wood. Both strong and flexible, the wood was so highly valued for making bows that it reportedly took a horse and a blanket to equal an osage-orange bow’s value in trade. The tree is also known as osage plum, osage apple, bodark, hedge apple, and horse apple.

The fruit is as unusual as its wood, and its size and taste may be relevant to Red Hill tree’s story. It has been suggested that the tree had limited natural distribution in part because birds and other native animals don’t like to eat its yellowish green, grapefruit-sized fruit.

Unlocking the Mystery

“I don’t buy it,” Virginia Tech dendrochronologist Carolyn Copenheaver said of the Lewis and Clark legend after she’d looked at a round cut from a branch that had fallen from the Red Hill tree some years earlier. Because she could count 92 years’ worth of rings in that branch alone, she believed taking a core sample from coring the tree’s trunk would prove the tree predated the Voyage of Discovery.

I had tried to date the tree without her help. There were no primary sources indicating when the tree was planted, but there were intriguing written accounts backing up the stories that would make a personal connection between the patriot and the massive tree. Unfortunately both written accounts–credible for their archaic language if nothing else–refer just to a large tree, and Jon Kukla, Red Hill’s director, knows other large trees grew near the residence in Henry’s day. Kulda tried to tease a bit more tree history from the site’s records by examining old photographs and etchings, but neither helped much.

I had hoped for a chart or formula to help me estimate tree age based on diameter, but Copenheaver, among others. scoffs at such formulas. While genetics is one of the three factors that determine tree growth rates (tree spacing and site conditions are the others). Copenbeaver insists “there is no reliable relationship between diameter and age.

The only truly accurate way to date a tree is to do what Copenheaver does–count its rings. Because trees put on different kinds of wood in early summer and in late summer, dendrochronologists can count annual rings to figure out how old a tree is. Of course, to see tree rings you must either cut the tree down (“not my favorite option,” deadpans Copenheaver), cut a wedge out (not recommended), or use an increment borer to extract an approximately 1/4-inch tube-like sample or wood from the tree.

A borer has a sharp, screw-type cutting edge on a hollow tube that can be screwed into the tree using a handle perpendicular to the tube. Once screwed into the tree, a semi-circular extractor is slid into the tube and used to pull a sample of wood from the tree. This procedure causes a wound, which can allow decay and pests to get into the tree. However, the 1/4-inch hole that is left after boring is similar to that made when tapping a sugar maple and can close up within a couple of years.

The core sample, a solid tube of wood, is then stored in a straw (or if the sample is a long one, in two straws taped together), and taken back to a lab to be dried, mounted, sanded, and then examined under a microscope. The sanding is important, she says, because scientists occasionally see “false rings” (an extra ring put on if a tree has gone into dormancy during a drought, then resumed growth after rain later in the year) and/or missing rings (no ring in the cored area during a particularly dry year). Copenheaver wants her samples “sanded to perfection,” because only then can she see “every single cell that’s in the wood.”

Under a microscope dendochronologists can also see clues (like the relative sizes of cells and the colors of cell boundaries) that alert them to missing or false rings. “I’m the biggest sandpaper snob in the world,” Copenheaver says, adding that she sands with finer and finer grade sandpaper, until she winds up with “a polish on the wood you wouldn’t believe,” making possible a ring count that’s “absolutely perfect.”

Copenheaver gave the Red Hill osage-orange a cursory look and offered good and bad news. The good news: The tree, which has multiple trunks, is not a stump sprout, meaning where the trunks meet there is solid wood. Had the trunks sprouted from a single stump the tree likely would have decayed in the middle. The bad news: all five of the tree’s main stems were rotten in the center, giving Copenheaver no inner rings to work with.

We had a last hope, however. The osage-orange’s bark can provide clues to its age. The only visual feature Copenheaver finds to be well-correlated with tree age is bark thickness.

“If I go out in the woods and I’m looking for clues on what is the oldest tree in a stand, diameter doesn’t help me at all, but the one thing I do look at is bark thickness,” she says. “If I’ve got something like a chestnut oak where it forms kind of triangular wedges running up and down the tree, those wedges will be really deep if the tree is old, because it’s just been putting on layer after layer of bark. “Smooth-barked trees like beeches don’t offer such useful age clues; rough-barked trees, she says, do.

“Look at how thick that bark is,” Copenheaver commented as we stood under the Red Hill osage-orange. “That, to me, is just incredible. When it’s that thick and furrowed, it’s an old tree.”

Then Copenheaver did her best to take a core sample from the tree. She took two-one each from what we deemed to be the soundest stems. The first sample, from a stem that seemed relatively young compared to the rest of the tree, came up 4 1/2 inches long and looked like a breadstick wet with resin. Copenheaver counted only 50 rings, but with an estimated radius of 13.5 inches the trunk could be 150 years old. Because trees tend to put on wider rings in youth than in old age, Copenheaver conservatively knocked the calculation back 50 years.

Then she took a sample from a trunk that appeared to he older. It yielded a 4-inch sample with 90 rings. With a conservative estimate of 17 inches for the radius of the trunk, it meant this portion of the tree could be about 332.5 years old, again conservatively estimated at 300 by Copenheaver.

Her estimate was music to my ears because of what it meant for Red Hill’s osage-orange. We were talking about a Virginia tree that might have been a little over 100 years old when Lewis and Clark sent what were supposedly the first osage-orange specimens east. And it was a tree that could easily have been large enough to shelter Patrick Henry (and later his weeping physician) when he lived at Red Hill between 1794 and 1799.

If this tree was 300 years old, it might have started growing on the Red Hill property in 1703, more than 100 years before the Lewis and Clark expeditions.

Without Copenheaver’s precision sandpapering of course, the dating lacked her usual precision. But I felt confident in her results, given that she scaled each estimate back to be conservative and because I’ve checked and rechecked our calculations. There seems no doubt to the age range of the historic tree.

So, with one question answered, a new, bigger one emerges: If we’re right and this tree is around 300 years old, how did an osage-orange, native to the lower Mississippi Valley, reach Virginia in the early 1700s?

“Very plausibly, the plant was on the eastern seaboard long before Lewis and Clark introduced it, given the nature of trade among Native Americans and the value of this plant, ” Karen Gorham-Smith, Red Hill’s associate curator, had suggested to me in a letter soon after I began investigating this tree’s history.

At the time, I considered it wishful thinking. Now I think she was on to something. Historians put the earliest English settlements in the Red Hill area around 1740, but an archeological study of the Red Hill site in 1999 found evidence of a “major prehistoric Indian village on the banks of the Staunton River,” which the property abuts, as well as artifacts indicating Indians lived in the vicinity around 1670.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think dating the Red Hill osage-orange would increase, rather than decrease, the mystery surrounding this tree. Now, previous legends about its tree’s history seem almost tame compared to what its true origins might be. I’ll leave it to the next detective to explore the possible Virginia Indian/osage-orange connection. The tree seems to be as good at keeping secrets as it is of persevering through the centuries.

Want to Know More?

* Red Hill’s osage-orange is currently considered the biggest of its species in AMERICAN FORESTS’ National Register of Big Trees. However, given that the tree has multiple trunks that appear to be different ages, a committee of Register advisors is reviewing the tree’s information to see if it should be measured differently. You can view the Register online or nominate a tree for the list: www.americanforests.org;

* Extremely disease- and pest-resistant, these fastgrowing, long-lived trees prefer full sun and grow well on most sites, including poor ones. They are hardy from Zones 4 to 9, but sometimes die to the ground in winter in the northern parts of their range. Saplings grown from cuttings of the Red Hill osage-orange are available from AMERICAN FORESTS’ Historic Tree Nursery; www.historictrees.org; 800/677-0727.

* A list of the average and maximum life spans for 67 species can be found on Virginia’s Big Tree website (www.fw.vt.edu/4h/bigtree/index.htm). They’re based on research from mathematical ecologist Craig Loehie and on personal communications from other scientists to Jeff Kirwan. Virginia Tech’s Big Tree coordinator, who maintains the site. These type lists may keep amateurs from making wildly inaccurate guesses.

* The mysterious osage-orange is but one of the many historic sites at Red Hill National Monument. For more information about the site, visit www.redhill.org; 800/514-7463.


Although the age of the osage-orange at Red Hill proves that particular tree predates the Corps of Discovery, letters from William Clark provide evidence that the Lewis and Clark expeditions did help bring this species east.

According to Peter Hatch, plant historian and director of Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, Clark sent cuttings from an osage-orange tree to Thomas Jefferson in 1804, hut there is no record that they rooted or grew. Interestingly, those cuttings came not from trees in the wild but from a tree in the garden of prominent St. Louis trader Pierre Choteau. In a letter to Jefferson, Clark wrote that he was enclosing some slips of a plant he called “Osage plum, and Apple,” and he described the cuttings, probably “too far advanced for their success,” as having been taken from a tree Choteau had obtained five years earlier from an Osage Indian.

It has been suggested that, although the tree in Pierre Choteau’s garden was too young to bear fruit when Lewis took cuttings from it in 1804, it was the source of the fruit from which Lewis did collect seeds on the expedition’s return to St. Louis in 1806. According to Hatch, Lewis sent seeds from that fruit to Jefferson, who sent them on to Bernard McMahon, a Philadelphia nurseryman, and to William Hamilton, a wealthy Pennsylvania plant collector, who succeeded in propagating osage-oranges from the seed.

Osage-orange trees that some, including author Steven Ambrose, claim were grown from this stock include one at Morea, several on the University of Virginia campus (Hatch is skeptical of that claim), and one in Philadelphia. Hatch believes the Philadelphia tree could well be grown from seed sent east by Lewis to McMahon or Hamilton.

Regardless of the tree’s origin east of the Mississippi, it seems the “hedgemania” that ensued in the mid-l9th century did the most to fuel the tree’s spread through North America. (The tree has now naturalized throughout most of the eastern U.S. and parts of the West.) Because osage-orange branches are thorny and the tree sends up many shoots from the roots when pruned, the trees can be used to form almost impenetrable hedges. By one estimate, 60,000 miles of osage-orange hedges were planted in this country in 1868 alone. The invention of barbed wire in 1875 brought the osage-orange’s heyday to an end, but, according to plant historian Peter Hatch, in the mid-19th century the osage-orange was “the most commonly planted plant in America.”

Nancy Ross Hugo is education manager at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia.

COPYRIGHT 2003 American Forests

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