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FAQ City: Where Are Charlotte’s Biggest Trees?

The trunk of Treasure Tree #17, an overcup oak is badly damaged from lightning and insect damage.
Michael Falero
/
WFAE
The trunk of Treasure Tree No. 17, an overcup oak, was badly damaged from lightning and insect damage.

Charlotte is known for its abundance of trees. Where can you find the biggest, oldest ones in the city?

A ‘Treasure Tree’ Lost

This spring, Brett Dupree went to the McDowell Nature Preserve in southwest Charlotte in search of an overcup oak tree, one of Charlotte’s “treasure trees.”

“Treasure trees” was a program started in the mid-1980s by Charlotte residents like Tom Martin and Joe McLaren. Its volunteers identified, documented and celebrated 123 of the largest and most significant trees in Mecklenburg County. Dupree is part of an effort to rediscover those trees since the program died out in 2000.

Brett Dupree gazes up at the overcup oak, also known as Treasure Tree #17.
Michael Falero
Brett Dupree looks up at the overcup oak "treasure tree" in May 2020.

Dupree found the tree in a bog during his trip in May and it was in bad shape. It had easily been almost 110 feet back in the 1990s, but in the spring reached only 65 feet. The tree was alive but Dupree said its days were numbered. He said it was likely struck by lightning and he believed insects had bored into one side of the tree trunk where the tree was missing its bark.

When Dupree returned to the bog in October, he found that many trees had been cleared and the bog dried up to make way for a new residential development.

He looked for the overcup oak.

“After a few minutes I spotted a huge trunk laying on the ground,” Dupree said in an email. “About one-third of the trunk was missing bark and you could see the remaining bark was sort of rolled at the edge. This was the tree. It hadn’t even been cut down. It was just pushed over by heavy machinery.”

‘Three Football Fields A Day’

A recent study by the University of Vermont in collaboration with TreesCharlotte found that Charlotte’s tree canopy declined significantly between 2012 and 2018.

“A conservative estimate would be [that the city lost] 250,000 trees and it’s likely higher than that,” said Doug Shoemaker. Shoemaker contributed to the study and works with UNC Charlotte’s Center for Applied Geographic Information Science. “I believe the number is three football fields a day.”

tree2.jpg
Charlotte's tree canopy is declining.

The study's findings showed even though trees have been planted, Charlotte lost 7,669 net acres of tree canopy, bringing the canopy to 45% of the city in 2018, compared to 49% in 2012. The city lost 8% of its tree canopy in that period, while gaining 4% from new trees.

Shoemaker said the tree loss can be attributed to a variety of factors, including new residential development; storm damage; “trees aging out;” and people “aggressively managing” trees on their properties, or cutting down trees to expand their homes or mitigate potential storm damage.

Even though the canopy has decreased, 45% canopy means Charlotte still has tens of millions of trees. The study was done using satellite imagery and a technology called LiDAR to figure out where trees are in the city and what is a tree versus a bush, so it’s difficult to get an exact count.

Shoemaker estimated that the total amount of greenery in Mecklenburg County, including tree coverage and what he called “managed green types,” is about 78% of the county’s surface area.

“These would be grasses, lawns, transportation corridors — all the grass and greenery along roads and ... under power lines,” Shoemaker said. “Most power lines have no trees but they still have grass underneath them.”

It’s tough to compare the city’s tree cover to nearby locations like Mint Hill, Pineville or Matthews because of the difference in surface area. But Charlotte ranks in the top 5% among medium and large U.S. cities for its trees, according to Shoemaker.

Where Are Charlotte’s Biggest Trees?

The Treasure Tree tag, the mainstay of the original program, hangs from a single nail on the bark of the Overcup Oak.
Michael Falero

We don’t know where the biggest tree in the city is but there are documented large trees throughout the metro area, including at Elmwood Cemetery in Fourth Ward, Myers Park and historic Rosedale Plantation. One of Shoemaker’s favorite trees is a “massive white oak” in the RibbonWalk Nature Preserve.

“This tree is so large that you would have to have four adults linking hands to get your hands around the base of it,” Shoemaker said. “It’s a gorgeous tree.”

A “national champion” tree makes its home just south of Charlotte, in the Union County town of Marvin. The 90-foot-tall, 28-foot-circumference willow oak with branches that reach across 135 feet is ranked second in the country. It’s around 30 feet taller than the average willow oak.

TreesCharlotte’s Treasure Trees program aims to find and keep track of Charlotte’s big trees because they may be tucked away in some woods or on someone’s private property. The organization keeps a list of the original “Treasure Trees” and accepts nominations for trees to add to the initiative.

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Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.
Michael Falero is a radio reporter, currently covering voting and the 2020 election. He previously covered environment and energy for WFAE. Before joining WFAE in 2019, Michael worked as a producer for a number of local news podcasts based in Charlotte and Boston. He's a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop intensive on Cape Cod and UNC Chapel Hill.