After half a century on the Champion Tree National Register, Red Hill’s centuries-old Osage-orange tree is back on top.
The Osage-orange at Red Hill is once again the sole state champion in size, also clinching the national co-champion slot with a Delaware Osage-orange.
First measured in 1970, the Red Hill Osage-orange towers over the grounds of the Patrick Henry National Memorial in Brookneal. Despite minor hiccups — like its 2011 dethroning by Osage-orange trees in Alexandria and Delaware — it has been the national champion at one time or another for nearly 50 years.
Rumored to be over 300 years old, the tree is 65 feet tall, with a circumference of 328 inches and a crown of 93 feet.
Since the 1940s, American Forests — a national nonprofit that has been protecting and restoring forests for 140 years — has been searching for, identifying and documenting the biggest trees in the nation. In national competition, big trees win points for circumference, height and crown spread.
Rose Tileston, manager of the Urban Forests Program with American Forests, currently oversees the National Register of Big Trees.
Tileston said Red Hill’s Osage-orange is something to be proud of.
“It doesn’t become a champion overnight, oftentimes these trees have been around for a very long time,” Tileston said. “These trees bring communities together.”
Champion trees can make people feel connected to the past, Tileston added.
“The mission of the national registry is to really inspire people to see the trees around them,” Tileston said. “It requires them to open their eyes.”
Caitlin Curtis Pieper, director of education at the Patrick Henry National Memorial, said that like the estate itself, the massive tree draws a crowd.
Dwarfing many of the buildings at the national memorial, the Osage- orange is hard to miss.
The tree is rumored to have been a favorite resting spot of Revolutionary War patriot Patrick Henry in his retirement years, and some people have said it was brought back to the property from the Lewis and Clark expedition — though Pieper added the tree likely outdates the historic journey.
Eric Wiseman, Virginia Tech associate professor of Urban Forestry and Arboriculture, is the state coordinator for the Virginia Big Tree Program. Though his job requires him to be up close and personal with countless trees across the state — the Virginia Big Tree program registers 1,500 trees as state champions, alone — Red Hill’s Osage-orange is one he remembers.
Wiseman visited the tree when it was used as a convergence point for the National Cadre of Tree Measures, a volunteer group of advanced tree measurers tasked with measuring and crowning America’s biggest trees. He also participated in a service project on the tree, updating the tree’s lightning protection equipment, re-installing bracing cables and pruning the branches to sustain its longevity. And when the tree was remeasured in 2017 — what would eventually lead to the Osage-orange reclaiming its state title — Wiseman led the charge.
The tree is beautiful, Wiseman said, with a shape and span that many people consider the prototypical shade tree. It’s clearly the biggest of its kind in the state, Wiseman added.
“Though there are a couple trees in that same realm, this one more or less stands alone at the top and has for a really long time,” Wiseman said. “It dates back almost as long as the tree program itself.”
Anyone who knows the program in Virginia knows Red Hill’s Osage-orange, according to Wiseman. He called it one of the top five trees of all time that has been recognized by the program in terms of notoriety.
“What’s impressive is its staying power,” Wiseman said. “It’s rare that a tree is the state champion for more than a few years at a time.”
Though Red Hill’s Osage-orange has a clear lead as state champion — raking in 416 points based on the American Forests formula — an Osage-orange in Clarke County is ranked second, with 386 points.
The Clarke County Osage-orange could take the lead if Red Hill’s Osage-orange were to fall prey to storm damage, lightning or other environmental stressors that threaten trees of its age and size.
Pieper said Red Hill will do everything it can to keep that from happening, adding that employees worry after every big windstorm, often checking on the tree as a first priority when they reach the grounds.
But Wiseman said he isn’t too worried. The best thing they can do is leave it alone.
If Red Hill’s Osage- orange has made anything clear, it’s that it is in it for the long haul.
Sarah Honosky covers Appomattox and Campbell counties at The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5556.