Beaufort Three-Century Project lauds live oaks as community's original sentinels

April 30, 2010 

One of the two large oak trees found by arborist Michael Murphy and a team of tree experts in Burton. The team set out to find, measure and record the area's largest and oldest live oak trees as part of the Beaufort Three-Century Project.

JONATHAN DYER | THE BEAUFORT GAZETTE

In a year-long quest to find, measure and record the Beaufort area's largest and oldest live oaks, a team of arborists has located trees that might predate the city's origins and at least one that might be even larger than Charleston County's famed Angel Oak.

The project started as part of the Beaufort Three-Century Project's commemoration of the city's tricentennial. The goal: Find at least one tree more than 300 years old that could have been there when the city was chartered in 1711.

So far, the team has measured 136 live oaks with an average diameter of 6 feet and plan to keep going, Murphy said.

The largest sits on the Cherry Hill Plantation in Burton and measures about 9.5 feet in diameter -- about 5 inches larger than the famed Angel Oak, team member and arborist Michael Murphy said. It could be 300 to 400 years old.

The second-largest sits at 30 Cavu Lane, measuring about the same size as the Angel Oak, Murphy said.

"They're not as dramatic looking, but they're bigger, and they could be older," Murphy said.

Randy Waldorf, a friend of the Weiland family that owns the Cavu Lane property, showed guests around the grounds Thursday as part of a B3C tree symposium.

"I come out here for therapy," he said. "There's something magical about this place and those trees."

AGE MYSTERY

Many other types of trees outnumber live oaks in Beaufort, including pine, laurel and water oaks, said Eliza Hill, the city's parks superintendent. But none encompass the timeless air or "old man-like character" of the live oaks, she said.

"They're what Northerners come down and gaze at," Hill said. "They're the symbol, not just of Beaufort, but of South Carolina."

Murphy and his team now have a database of the area's grandest live oaks. But the trees' exact ages remain a mystery, said Henri Grissino-Mayer, a nationally renowned tree-ring expert with the University of Tennessee who participated in the tree symposium Thursday.

The live oak "is the most majestic of all trees on this planet," Grissino-Mayer said. "It is so strange that we know so little about their age."

A tree's rings tell a scientific story. Trees form a new growth-ring every year they are alive. Weather patterns determine the rings' widths.

Grissino-Mayer has used tree-ring science to debunk historical mysteries and, with other experts and forensic science, even helped link a murderer to the scene of his crime in Collin County, Texas.

Years ago, he was called to conduct ring tests on wood from a log cabin in Hodgenville, Ky., long believed to be the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln.

After matching his research with a database of ring patterns for those trees in that region, he found the wood was cut in the 1840s or 1850s, after Lincoln was born in 1809.

Lincoln might have been born at that location, Grissino-Mayer determined, but it wasn't in that cabin.

If experts know how tall and wide a tree was while alive, and then count its rings after it's dead, they can begin making a correlation between size and age. This helps them scientifically estimate the ages of living trees.

A GROWING NEED

Murphy and B3C project coordinator Deborah Johnson recently took Grissino-Mayer a "pie slice" sample of a live oak that fell on Pinckney Island.

Grissino-Mayer said he hopes more people will send him samples to study. If he gets enough, "eventually we'll come up with a relationship" to determine the ages of the trees the team has found, he said.

Add those to his ever-growing list of projects.

The world of dendrochronology is a small one, he said. Not many experts are out there and even fewer labs exist for tree-ring study.

Grissino-Mayer said he's even reached out to tree-ring experts like Michael Worthington of Oxford University, saying they are welcome to come help with the ever-increasing workload in the U.S.

Worthington recently visited Beaufort and took samples of the original beams in Beaufort's historic Verdier House as part of a Historic Beaufort Foundation project. The foundation is paying Worthington to help them determine the building's exact age.

The Lowcountry would benefit from a tree-ring lab and program of its own, Grissino-Mayer said.

"The demand is outpacing the number of people who can do the work," he said. "I get asked to date a log cabin once a week."

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