Arnold oak could be next state tree

Could replace recently felled Flora's Oak in Montgomery County

By E.B. FURGURSON III, Staff Writer
The Capital, August 02, 2008
Paul W. Gillespie - The Capital With the Wilmer Stone Oak standing silently by, County Executive John R. Leopold talked about it — the Maryland State Champion tree. The coordinator for the Big Tree Program for the Maryland Association of Forest Conservancy Boards said the tree is being considered for the State Tree honor as well, which requires an official proclamation by the legislature and governor.

The 128-foot Wilmer Stone White Oak in Arnold Park now stands as the Maryland Champion of its species. As such, it is now eligible to become the official State Tree.

But that did not stop County Executive John R. Leopold from holding a ceremony yesterday declaring it the state tree.

The Department of Natural Resources said that particular tree is indeed the state champion white oak, but becoming the official state tree requires a process via the legislature, leading to an official proclamation.

"While there is no legislation controlling it the precedent is for the legislature and the governor to issue a proclamation," said John Bennett, coordinator of the Big Tree Program for the Maryland Association of Forest Conservancy Boards, which oversees champion tree matters statewide.

The tree is so big you can see it on Google Earth, a Web site that shows satellite pictures of land. There, its bare winter branches and shadow tower above the other flora in the surrounding woods.

It was named for the late Wilmer Stone, a noted forester who once owned the Arnold Park property where it stands.

It procured the honor of being considered for the state tree designation almost by default, after a windstorm in June felled the previous white oak so honored. That tree, Flora's Oak in Montgomery County, assumed the title after the great Wye Oak in Talbot County - believed to have been close to 450 years old - succumbed to a storm in 2004. The Wye Oak had been the national champion since the 1930s.

There is a difference between the state tree, which is the white oak, and the State Tree which is a designation given to the largest of that species, which for years was the mighty Wye Oak.

Flora's Oak had won official proclamation in the spring. Ironically the very day it was blown down in a storm, the governor's office had sent an e-mail to set a date for the official ceremony bestowing "state tree-dom."

"So I encouraged the Anne Arundel Forestry Board to do it quick, to move expeditiously," Mr. Bennett said, perhaps fueling the rush to announce honors for the Arnold oak in yesterday's ceremony.

Before the ceremony, officials and tree lovers carefully loped down the slope next to the Arnold Park ballfield to the base of the tree. Some held on to a guide rope to check their balance.

Though he said he was not going to do it physically, County Executive John R. Leopold said "If there is a tree worth hugging this is it. The land is not something we own, it is something we belong to and need to care for as stewards for future generations."

Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Annapolis, spoke of the mighty oak as a symbol, noting the State House itself is topped by an acorn. "This is a symbol not only of the strength of Maryland but of this country," he said.

Meanwhile, flora and fauna surrounding the majestic oak were not impressed by the pageantry. Wilber Stone's tree might have been embarrassed by all the fuss, especially the red, white and blue bunting wrapped around her, just below the spot where nearly half the tree had split under its own weight in 1988.

As politicos spoke, birds chirped and flitted in the nearby woods and a salamander scampered among the deep ridges in the oak's bark, paused to look at the commotion, then slipped under the bunting, presumably for shade.

Despite the apparently premature huzzahs, nearly all who spoke gave credit where it is due. The honored tree's designation as a state champion, as well as many other champions in the county - both state and national - are due to the unwavering devotion and hard work of the late Colby Rucker.

Mr. Rucker, who died in 2004, was the first to measure the tree and he named it after Wilmer Stone. His widow, Betsy Rucker, was at the ceremony and remembered the love Mr. Rucker had for the woods and outdoors in general.

"He loved the land, the trees. He would rather be in these woods than any place in the world," she said. "He knew everything about them, and if he didn't he would come in and look it up. And we didn't have the Internet."

Karen Fedor, a tree enthusiast, helped Mr. Rucker measure the Wilmer Stone Oak back in 2002.

"It wasn't easy," she said pointing to the steep slope and odd shape of the tree's crown caused by the damage done in 1988. "But he was so precise. He knew it would be a state champion and I am so excited."

The big trees are measured on a point system, measuring the circumference of a tree's trunk in inches, adding to that its height in feet, and adding of the average width of its crown - how wide the branches spread.

The Wilber Stone Oak is 253 inches around, 128 feet tall with an average 83-foot crown. For 402 total points.

Had the tree not lost to much of its prowess in 1988, chances are it could have become the national champion white oak, an honor now assigned to a tree in Virginia with a whopping 427 points.

Anne Arundel County boasts some 15 state champion trees, including the Wilmer Stone oak, and four of those are national champions: an American beech, a shagbark hickory, a chestnut oak and a poison sumac. A county hibiscus is also a National Champion Shrub.

(Revised August 2008)