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Here’s how to find Charlotte’s biggest, oldest trees

Editor’s note: A version of this story was originally published in December 2020.

In the spring of 2020, Brett Dupree went to the McDowell Nature Preserve in southwest Charlotte in search of an overcup oak tree, one of Charlotte’s “treasure trees.”

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

“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.

Dupree found the tree in a bog during his 2020 trip and it was in bad shape. It had easily been almost 110 feet back in the 1990s, but in the spring, it 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 some bark was missing.

When Dupree returned to the bog in October of the same year, 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 2020 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, who 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.”

The study's findings showed even though trees had 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 had decreased, 45% 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 Charlotte’s tree cover to other Mecklenburg County municipalities 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?

Despite the estimated canopy loss, Charlotte still has a lot of large, old trees. WFAE listener Cailen wrote to FAQ City and asked, “Where are the biggest trees in Charlotte?”

We don’t know where the absolute largest tree in the city is, but there are documented big and old 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.