Back in 1970, a project called the “4-H Big-Tree Search” was launched in Virginia. Its goal was to increase young people’s appreciation for trees by encouraging them to discover, identify, and measure trees growing in their community.
A list of Virginia’s biggest trees was compiled, and through the years, hundreds of 4-H’ers have measured and submitted specimens they thought might be contenders for recognition. Jeff Kirwan, Extension forestry specialist, coordinates the program. “There is something special about kids and trees. They love to climb them, of course, and they are awestruck by their size.” Kirwan also notes that research has shown that children who interact with nature have reduced rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – also known as ADHD – and improved cognitive development.
Virginia’s big-tree database ranks trees based on a formula that uses circumference of the tree at a height of 4.5 feet, total height, and crown spread. The top five trees for each species make the list and can also be recognized on the National Register of Big Trees. A white oak – first measured by a 4-H Club in Brunswick County in the 1970s – still holds the national title with a circumference of 312 inches and a height of 86 feet.
Over the years, Kirwan has talked with thousands of young people about trees and says, “At the end of my presentation, I ask the children if they would rather have a new playground or a big tree. They always choose the tree.”
Jeff Kirwan, with co-author Nancy Ross Hugo, recently published Remarkable Trees of Virginia, a coffee-table book that shares the stories of culturally or historically significant trees in Virginia. It features the photography of Robert Llewellyn.