With a taste of cooler temperatures last week and fall-like weather right around the corner, I find myself planning more adventures, get-togethers, and festivals now that I won’t melt under the summer sun. These adventures find me moving all about the greater Richmond area, from Ashland to Petersburg, and when I find myself to the southern end of our region, I always do my best to carve out a spot of time to visit my favorite tree.
The Cucumber Tree Magnolia (Magnolia accuminata) in Colonial Heights (click here for Google Maps location) is one of the more visually striking and almost otherworldly trees in the area and deserves a visit if you make your way to the Colonial Height and Petersburg area.
The tree sits in front of the Violet Bank Museum in Colonial Heights overlooking the Appomattox River and Old Town Petersburg. When viewing the tree for the first time, it looks almost comical in size and stature next to the relatively small museum building with its white peeling paint. This backdrop is somewhat fitting though as the tree is aging and is beginning to show its threadbare spots. With estimations of it being at least 200 if not 300 hundred years old, this gradual deterioration is to be expected and is actually quite limited. This particular Cucumber Tree Magnolia is also estimated to be the second largest of its species in the world, with a nearly 23-foot circumference, making it that much more spectacular.
The idea of a record-holding tree usually conjures images of extremely tall trees with enormous towering crowns, but that is not this tree. Instead it’s almost the inverse with a relatively stout height but an extreme girth and outstretched, over-extended limbs that are trees in their own right. The first main scaffold limbs on the tree are at least 24 inches in diameter. They gracefully extend until their massive weight pulls them to rest on the ground. Large pockets of decay can be seen in several of these limbs, so without the support on the ground, these limbs would have likely torn from the tree decades ago. The tree took action to support its failing limbs on its own while many failed attempts by human intervention can be seen on the tree.
Viewed up close, a variety of failed arboricultural practices can be seen almost as a museum in itself. Large pilings have been placed in the ground to hold up several of the low limbs, which can be argued do as much if not more damage than the tree supporting itself on the ground. Scattered throughout the canopy are decades worth of steel cables and supports that long-ago arborists installed to maintain the tree and with time many of them have broken or gone slack. It’s most interesting to see such failed support systems hanging from limbs that have once again provided their own support on the soil. One very odd addition to the tree is an old technique used to cover holes and cavities in trees: the much dreaded concrete. A large over-extend limb obviously had a decay spot in the past and well intentioned caretakers took on the project of filling the void and sculpting a brick pattern into the concrete wedge place in the limb. As arborists now know, concrete is never a good choice for filling wounds and this tree is the poster child as the branch is now almost completely decayed leaving behind a brick textured chunk of concrete clumsily sitting inside a once-enormous branch.
When I began my career in Richmond caring for trees, I was appointed the task of monitoring and caring for this amazing tree. As I learned more about it, I felt a real weight on my shoulders to care for it. This weight eventually turned towards reverence as it became clear that my input was likely inconsequential. It has lived for easily over a century before I was born and, barring a catastrophe, will likely outlive me. This tree has seen more history than we can imagine and is even rumored to be a campsite of high-ranking leadership during the Civil War’s Battle of the Crater. If you find yourself south of Richmond this fall, I highly recommend stopping in to see this remarkable tree before nature or man cause its decline. Take a moment to appreciate what this tree has seen and all of the adversities it must have overcome to grow so large and survive for so long.