Editor’s Note—We invite you to contribute to our Kenneth Greif Tree Fund this month. This blog is about beautiful, old Thoroughgood trees and how they grew after early English settlers razed most of the land in Virginia Beach for farming and lumber. A healthy tree canopy combats climate change, provides habitat, and protects the land from flooding, but many neighborhoods do not have the abundance of trees Thoroughgood has. Your donations will help us to bring trees back to all of Virginia Beach.
By Mary Reid Barrow, Photos by Steve Daniel
A beautiful old elm tree stands like a sentinel at one corner of the City’s historic Thoroughgood House property, and a towering northern red oak stands on the other corner.
A large and handsome black walnut tree also overlooks the Hermitage, a historic home, owned by Marianne and John Littel, on the other side of the Thoroughood neighborhood.
All three trees are more than 225 years old and are among the oldest trees in Thoroughgood. They probably were planted by the homes’ first owners in the early 1700s, said Brent James.
Brent is founder of Lynnhaven River NOW’s Notable Tree Program that recognizes the oldest trees in Virginia Beach. He also is LRNow’s oyster restoration coordinator.
The Thoroughgood trees are categorized as Tier One Notable Trees, which means they are at least three-fourths the size of the state champion trees, Brent explained, and there are about 200 Tier One trees across the city. Tier Two trees are at least two-thirds the size of the state champions, and Special Category trees are those with unusual characteristics, he added.
Interestingly, most of the beautiful trees with their leafy green canopy that make Thoroughgood such a special place wouldn’t qualify for the Notable Tree Program, Brent said.
As big and majestic as the trees are, most were planted in the mid-1900s as the land transitioned from farmland to the Thoroughgood neighborhood we know today.
Going back to the 1600s, before the Thoroughgood House and the Hermitage were even built, the landscape was covered with huge old growth trees. When early settlers arrived, they took axes to the trees, shipped the lumber back to England and made way for tobacco and other crops, Brent explained.
Many Tier One trees, like the elm, the oak and black walnut, were planted by early homeowners to shade their homes or line their driveways in much the same way most of the beautiful trees in Thoroughgood today were planted in mid-century.
“It’s interesting that most of the old growth trees across the city today are no older than the oldest houses still standing,” Brent said. “Early settlers were so quick to clear the land.”
Brent estimated the elm is about 240 years old, the northern red oak, about 245 years old, and the black walnut, about 225 years old.
The American elm at the Thoroughgood House also is interesting, he said, because it is the only Notable elm he has come across. “So many have died from Dutch elm disease,” he explained.
The big black walnut at the Hermitage is one of six large black walnuts on the property, which means the trees may have been planted as a grove, Brent said. Other interesting old trees at the Hermitage include a huge hackberry tree with five trunks and two ancient eastern red cedar trees with so many gnarly twists and turns in the wood that you can see faces in the trunks.
Elsewhere in Thoroughgood, there is a 280-year-old tulip poplar and a 175-year-old loblolly pine.
Trees like these are so much more than venerable old trees. They tell a story of how the city grew and the landscape changed.