The Sunderland Sycamore, a forest unto itself

The tree is enormous. It is almost too much to take in. Standing under its lower branches borders on intimidation. The branches themselves would be nice-sized trees.


On a Harvard Forest Forest Time Summer REU field excursion, where we visited the Art Museum at Smith College to see the new Lay of the Land exhibit and climb Mount Holyoke to see the inspiration for Thomas Cole’s painting ‘The Oxbow‘, we HAD to go see the Sunderland Sycamore, the so-called Buttonball Tree.

Beyond visiting this tree because of its enormous size and what Craig Allen would call its “wisdom“, we went to view it because of the news story that the “600 year old” white oak in Basking Ridge, New Jersey appears to be dying.

The phrase “600 year old” is in quotes because that is its estimated age. For those of us have studied the growth rates and ages of some impressive trees around the world, we are often taken aback at how fast growing they actually are.

Large trees are thought to be old because of their size. But, what we have learned is that size doesn’t often equal age, especially in regions where forests  are dense, like the deciduous forests in the eastern US. These trees can be old. For example, a few studies in central Kentucky have found large, open-grown trees and wolf trees dating to the early to late 1600s. They were suppressed for a century or more and then released as Europeans immigrated into the region. After being released from the competition of neighboring trees, they developed into the Venerable Trees that are characteristic of the landscape.


A 372 yr old chinkapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) with wolftree characteristics in Sept 2008.

Often, however, large trees with an open-grown form are not as old as assumed. Trees with relatively massive canopies have, presumably, massive root systems. The combination of a large canopy and root system allows a tree to acquire large amounts of Sun (energy), water, and nutrients. That makes them excellent competitors and, often, very fast growing.

Some sampling of live oaks in the southeastern US indicates they are much faster growing than expected. While sitting on a large live oak cross-section in southwest Georgia, I aged it to be a little over 200 years old, not the 400 that might have been assumed. When I suggested to Ted Turner that the live oak on his property, what he said was one of the top 10 largest in the world, might not be as old as he assumed, well, he blustered and pretty much left the lab. Jane Foster took it in stride and wanted to learn more about dendrochronology. I just blushed.

Recent research suggests that tree size might be a factor of longevity, not age. This finding builds upon research that suggests age is not a limitation in growth. That the 3000-4000 year old bristlecone pine in the western U.S. are growing faster today than what appears to be any another time during their lifetime is one example that age does not seem to limit trees.

What is fascinating about this research is that it indicates that what we see as senescence in trees might not be what we believe it to be, what we project onto trees. Trees are like us, but they are not.

The professor who taught me tree ID when I was an undergrad once said, to the effect, that redwoods don’t die, they just fall over. It might be true.

That trees can live much long than humans and many civilizations and do not necessarily decline in growth when old gives them yet another layer of ecological wisdom.

Not being the oldest individual of a certain species does not take away from a massive tree. Its grandeur is still there. Its strength is still there. Its stillness is still there. It is all still there, whether is is 100 years old or 500 years old.

It is tough to see beauties like the Basking Ridge white oak on their way out, shuffling off the coil. But, it is marvelous to ponder their long lives, the lives of the Wye Oak, the Basking Ridge White Oak, the Buttonball Tree, etc. It is marvelous to ponder how much of buzzing about that us busy bees do.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s