IDENTIFYING SOME OF VIRGINIA’S OLDEST TREES
An arborist takes us on a tree tour in Virginia’s Hunt Country
Written by: Heidi Baumstark
It’s been said that a tree’s beauty lies in its branches, and its strength lies in its roots. Keeping roots strong and healthy is one of the primary missions of local arborist, Jim Donegan.
Since 1984 Donegan’s Tree Service in Leesburg has been servicing properties in Virginia’s hunt country, including the Middleburg area, Marshall, The Plains, Warrenton, and Haymarket. Owner Jim Donegan was one of the first one hundred people in the mid-Atlantic area to become an ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) certified arborist. He and his team are in the business of caring for and saving trees for residential, commercial, and government clients. His wife, Patty, handles the business advertising and office management for all these years — “that, and raising kids,” Donegan adds.
Donegan has always loved the outdoors. And it shows by the testament of his clients and the trees under his care. He provides complete tree care, including deep-root fertilizing to ensure healthy growth, pruning, and shaping. To protect from pests, an integrated pest management program is incorporated to prevent disease and infestations; their focus is on natural alternative insect control over chemical treatments. And when emergencies arise no matter the season, Donegan’s handles everything from snow, ice, and wind damage to removing old diseased trees or ones damaged by lightning. Donegan’s also does tree inventories identifying all the trees on a property, mapping out potential hazards.
On a recent driving tour, Donegan highlighted some of the area’s oldest trees. The first stop was at one of his clients: Oatlands Historic House and Gardens in Leesburg, a National Historic Landmark, and a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“We trimmed about a hundred trees here,” Donegan said. He also developed a GIS mapping system pinpointing the location of 17 historic trees on the property. Visitors can follow this link https://hosted.arborprousa.com/DNGN-Oatlands/, which is a map showing the location of those 17 historic trees and their approximate age. When using the GIS map, touch one of the green dots on a mobile device screen and it will pull up that tree’s location. “GPS satellite tracking will follow you around when on the property, and when you’re close to a tree you want to know about, just touch it to get the information,” he added. “My favorite trees are the 150-year-old laceleaf Japanese maples in the back of the old greenhouse.”
Nearby is a shagbark hickory that resembles its name: shaggy bark. There’s also a 200-year-old American boxwood canopy near picnic tables for visitors to sit down and enjoy, and an old osage orange tree with its leaning trunk. Donegan’s company cleared the underbrush around the picnic area to make it more accessible to the public.
In the back of the mansion, Donegan pointed to the third largest ginkgo tree in the country. “It’s close to 200 years old,” he said. “Virginia Tech came out and did the measurements.” Its delicate fan-shaped leaves transform into brilliant fans of gold in the fall. There is also a state champion hornbeam (also known as ironwood) tree, which is native to eastern North America and is the oldest one in Virginia.
Near Oatlands’ entrance gravel road is a giant blue atlas cedar. A sign next to it shows the tree was planted by the Eustis family in the early 20th century. The property also includes 200-year-old yews. “To get the age of a tree, we examine the tree’s placement and sometimes get a core sample,” Donegan explained. “I also research the property to see how far back it goes.”
From Oatlands, Donegan drove south on Route 15 to Lime Kiln Road, then onto Snickersville Turnpike, which is a designated Virginia Byway. Donegan has several clients along this stretch, but our next stop was at an 87-acre equestrian farm owned by clients Joe Keating and Tiffany Lee of Jolee Farm. (The farm’s name is a clever play-off of both of their names.)
At the farm’s entrance stands a giant northern red oak. It’s one of the oldest red oaks; it’s been there for 175-200 years. In his four-wheeler, Keating drove up and down the hilly terrain pointing out various trees Donegan has worked on. Stopping at a special spot, Keating pointed to an ash tree stump with “The Secret Garden” artfully inscribed. Whimsical flowing flowers are carved in, with a carved wooden fox perched on top. Keating added, “We created The Secret Garden as a special place in memory of Tiffany’s sister, Caroline ‘Rexi’ Lee, who passed away in July 2020.”
Also in The Secret Garden is a 200-year-old white oak. Donegan cares for those trees along with others throughout the property, which was recently placed into a conservation easement in August by the Land Trust of Virginia (LTV). The entire 87.8 acres are in easement, including sections of the battlefield from the Civil War Battle of Aldie (June 17, 1863).
Leaving Jolee, our next stop was a drive to The Plains in Fauquier County at Kyle and Sarah Jo Luby’s farm on Coon Tree Road, another LTV property. The Luby’s 31-acre easement was recorded by LTV in September 2018. Donegan’s measurement of the 200-year-old tulip poplar near the entrance shows it is 6.9 feet in diameter and 20 feet in circumference. “It’s one of the biggest poplars I’ve seen in this area — and I’ve seen a lot,” he adds. The tree had a lightning protection cable connected to a ground rod, so if lightning struck the electrical charge would go underground preventing damage to the tree’s trunk and limbs.
Last stop on the driving tour was at Melrose Castle in Warrenton on Rogues Road. The stone pillar at the castle’s entrance reads “1857.” This is another one of Donegan’s clients. In 1983, the property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It served as a Confederate hospital, a Union headquarters during the Civil War, and was home to a large Angus cattle herd. Today, Warren Ours is king of this castle and has lived there since 2019. On one side of his castle stands a tulip poplar. Behind, is a white oak; both are about 200 years old. “The white oak is the granddaddy of them all,” Donegan says.
How did Donegan get into this business? His career started in 1978 in Northern Virginia, working with Forman & Biller Tree Expert Company in Arlington as a groundsman and climber. “We worked on very old trees including those at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate in Mount Vernon, Virginia; the U.S. Naval Observatory in D.C.; the French ambassador’s D.C. residence; and several embassies. Working under Jim Biller — one of the leading arborists of his time — Donegan’s knowledge of trees expanded. “He [Biller] taught me how to care for trees as well as the clients,” Donegan says.
One of his first jobs was on the 18-acre White House grounds and working on trees on other federal government property: Sherman Circle Park, Lafayette Park, First Division Monument in President’s Park, and The Ellipse. “We worked on 480 trees total, some of which were the oldest in the area,” Donegan says.
“My job is to save trees,” he says. “The cool thing about doing these tree inventories is visiting farms and estates; I get to be around these old trees and create a care plan for them,” Donegan says. “Our job as arborists is to save trees. I’m always looking for new ways to improve my knowledge and we’re committed to serving clients with the best tree care possible.” ML
For more information on Donegan’s Tree Service, visit doneganstreeservice.com or call 703-327-6675. More information on Oatlands Historic House and Gardens at 20850 Oatlands Plantation Lane in Leesburg can be found at oatlands.org.
This article first appeared in the November 2021 Issue.