How the Cherry Hill Plantation live oak became SC Heritage Tree of the year

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comDecember 23, 2013 

The Cherry Hill Plantation live oak won the state's Heritage Tree Award for 2013.

DELAYNA EARLEY — Submitted photo Buy Photo

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    Email David Lauderdale at dlauderdale@islandpacket.com.

Thanks to Michael Murphy of Beaufort for sharing background on the Cherry Hill Plantation live oak's recognition Dec. 10 for winning the state's Heritage Tree Award for 2013.

Michael is a board-certified master arborist who worked with many trees countywide prior to his retirement.

"Heritage Tree Award"

By Michael Murphy

In January 2009, a volunteer group of residents initiated an endeavor called the Beaufort Three Century Project (B3C) that was coordinated by Deborah Johnson.

B3C would be a dynamic group of activities, historical seminars and other educational and informational proceedings headed up by volunteers and interested residents. It would all lead up to Jan. 17, 2011, when the city of Beaufort would celebrate the 300th anniversary of its founding.

A call went out to the general public for project ideas. Our contribution to the project was to have a countywide search to try and find the oldest tree in Beaufort County.

As an arborist, we are often asked how old our massive and majestic live oaks are. The general public, as a rule, has an inflated vision of the age of the trees. We always try to make an educated, more practical guess, but never have had any concrete principles to follow as each one is so unique and distinctive. Our goal was to find several trees that we could, by historical references, somehow connect to a point in time when our forefathers chartered our town 300 years ago. Our hope was that we could discover a tree with the size and grandeur of Charleston's Angel Oak.

An article describing our intentions for seeking input from the general public on where some of these larger trees might be was published in The Beaufort Gazette. The subsequent response was overwhelming. Calls came in fast and furiously.

Some of the trees we knew were out there but many were newly uncovered for us. Each one came with some personal or public history and we were able to begin to make some connections to size and age.

As we talked to the people calling in the trees, one underlying theme was evident. Each person felt some form of personal connection and had a sense of ownership to each tree, even when they were not on their properties. This feeling was complimented by the fact that they also knew that they were only stewards of these trees, caring for them for future generations.

The search yielded data on 149 trees. The average trunk diameter measured at 4 feet was 73 inches, the largest being 113.75 inches and the smallest at 40 inches. The average height was 60 feet; the tallest was 70 feet and the shortest 30 feet. The average branch spread was 110 feet, the widest 182 feet and the smallest 75 feet. Among this field, we reached our goal.

On a bluff overlooking the shores of the western bank of Battery Creek is a 255-acre area where the former Cherry Hill Plantation once stood. In the early 1850s, the Coffin family purchased the acreage to add to their other Beaufort County holdings, the Coffin Point and McTureus plantations.

There is not much known about the number of slaves or of the number of buildings present, yet there remains a grave under a live oak tree where Mary Pope, a former slave is buried. The Coffin family had great respect for their "workers," almost unheard of at the time. Mary was especially close and dear to the family. Lore has it that she often read and studied under the shade of a magnificently large and beautiful tree on the grounds.

The Coffins abandoned all of their Beaufort County holdings when they fled the area in advance of Union troops, who arrived in November 1861. The former plantation land has had no less than 20 owners since then. Whether by luck or just good fortune, the property has for the most part stayed undeveloped. Here sits the Cherry Hill live oak, Beaufort County's largest and oldest documented tree.

The tree is 113.75 inches in diameter measured at 4 feet with a circumference of 30 feet 1 inch. It is 55 feet tall and has a 114-foot spread. For such a large tree, this may not seem like a very broad spread. What stands before us today is only one half of the tree; the other half was destroyed in 1959 when Hurricane Gracie hit.

The petrified remains of that half of the tree are being preserved by the Beaufort office of the F.A. Bartlett Tree Expert Co., formerly Preservation Tree Care.

During a symposium held by B3C on the big tree search, the grounds where the tree resides were opened up by the present owner for tours. Docents told visitors of the history and maintenance measures taken to that date to preserve the tree for future generations. The owner has extended his permission for interested residents to visit at any time. The tree is very accessible and sits in an open field, 30 yards from the end of, appropriately named, Oak View Drive, off Parris Island Gateway, in the Burton section of Beaufort County. Using a GPS, the address would be 2940 Oak View Drive, Burton, SC 29906.

The Beaufort office of the F.A. Bartlett Tree Expert Co. had crown-cleaned the tree and reduced the weight of some of its elongated limbs and leads in order to reduce the chances of failure before the symposium. They have committed their services to continue quarterly monitoring inspections of the tree's structural and physical health as well as caring for the grave site in perpetuity.

Future plans are to continue weight reduction and crown cleaning, pruning procedures as needed, installing a lightning-protection system and increasing the mulch ring around the tree's base.

The owner has no immediate plans for the land. He is very aware of the unique and magnificent resource that he is stewarding and is dedicated to keeping it open to the public for the near and distant future.

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