Beaufort County's largest and oldest documented tree was festooned in its finest Spanish moss and resurrection fern for a big occasion Tuesday, remarkable even in its life that spans 350 to 400 years.
The Cherry Hill live oak in Burton was presented the state's 2013 Heritage Tree Award by Trees SC, a nonprofit organization that fosters stewardship of South Carolina's urban and community forests.
A gaggle of people looking the size of acorns stood next to the 55-foot-tall oak, with its circumference of 30 feet, 1 inch and canopy spread of 114 feet.
Mike McFee, now a Beaufort City Council member, said he climbed it as a boy when his family farmed the land on the banks of Battery Creek on Oak View Drive off Parris Island Gateway. The tree was even grander then, before lightning and/or a storm took out a big piece of its canopy. A white picket fence testifies to the family's effort to protect the special tree.
A wooden basketball backboard in a nearby oak, moss hanging from the rusted rim, is a reminder of an era when gnarly trees and salty creeks served as the recreation department, and Walt Disney World.
The cracked gravestone of a Mary M. Pope, circa 1848, rests at the foot of the tree, whispering of its ante-bellum days on the Coffin family's Cherry Hill Plantation.
Arborist Michael P. Murphy and Deborah Johnson spoke of the tree's discovery during the Beaufort Three-Century Project, which led up to the city of Beaufort's tricentennial on Jan. 17, 2011.
"Our goal was to find a tree that our founders may have walked under 300 years ago when the Beaufort District was first settled," Murphy said.
Johnson, who coordinated the three-year "B3C" project and now is Bluffton's librarian, said, "The tree project is one the community fell in love with."
Murphy's team ended up visiting and collecting data on 149 trees.
Today, the grandest of them all sits on land owned by Merry Land Properties LLC of Augusta, Ga., whose partner Tennent Houston came to the unveiling of the tree's new bronze plaque. Development plans for the roughly 10-acre site are uncertain, he said, but the tree will be protected.
It also sits in the town of Port Royal, which code enforcement officer Dan Lemieux said has the strongest tree-protection ordinance in the county.
The F.A. Bartlett Tree Expert Co. branch in Beaufort, formerly Preservation Tree Care, will continue pro-bono preservation work on the tree.
Trees SC director Karen Hauck said the award celebrates and recognizes remarkable trees, and should help people appreciate the cultural benefits of trees.
As rain started to fall on the little ceremony, everyone was given an acorn to marvel at the mysteries of time and place.
And Murphy quoted from nature writer Hal Borland:
"If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees."
Video: Historic tree honored as the 2013 Heritage Tree in Beaufort (2:33)
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