Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia draws visitors with its careful interpretation of the past. The researched recreation of formal gardens, architecture, and costumed re-enactors bring eighteenth-century America to life.

But another layer of that careful interpretation of the past recently received important recognition.

Last fall, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s 301-acre historic area earned certification as a Level I Accredited Arboreta through ArbNet’s Arboretum Accreditation Program.

Certification of the Colonial Williamsburg Arboretum was originally the vision of the historical organization’s arborist, Charles Gardner. The project received support and sponsorship by BrightView Landscaping Services.

Much of the documentation work was done by a group of six volunteers participating in the tree steward training offered by the James City County/Williamsburg Master Gardener Association.

Rick Brown is one of those volunteers.

The group worked quickly, starting in March 2018 to take inventory of the vast collection of trees and woody shrubs in Williamsburg’s historic area.

“All of them either have been native to the area or were imported by the colonists prior to 1780,” Brown said.

Plants are key to telling the story

Compton Oak Colonial Williamsburg

Compton Oak Colonial Williamsburg (photo credit Jerry Gammon)

Williamsburg was founded as the Virginia Colony’s capital in 1699. After the Virginia capital moved up the James River to Richmond in 1780, the city became a much quieter place.

Reconstruction of the Colonial town began in 1926, when the city’s historical importance came to the attention of John D. Rockefeller, who funded most of the reconstruction.

Gardens and landscapes were a key part of the reconstruction.

Arthur Shurcliff—a landscape architect who worked for a stint in the office of renowned American landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted—was brought in to design the grounds and gardens. Shurcliff’s work in Williamsburg is credited with promoting the American Colonial Revival garden style in the United States.

Brown and his co-volunteers retraced some of Shurcliff’s steps as they sought arboretum certification. “[Shurcliff and his team] did a lot of archaeological work in the gardens to determine what was planted. They had historical documents they referred to from diaries that were kept,” Brown said. “We had access to all that documentation.”

The group spent months doing inventories, and in the meantime set a near-term goal to tag and document 25 trees in order to apply to ArbNet for Level I accreditation. Research continues to document 100 trees—the benchmark for Level II accreditation.

The six volunteers used detailed maps of Colonial Williamsburg to create inventory collection sheets. They divided into 2-person teams and each took an area.

“We would go into the gardens with the historical data, look to see if the plants that were on there were still there—some had aged out or been replaced,” Brown said. “It was a real learning process.”

A tree destination

A diary entry from the Colonial era states that a person could stand in the cupola of the Wrenn Building at the College of William and Mary—located in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg—and see both the James and York Rivers, which border the peninsula on which Williamsburg is located.

That means there were far fewer trees in the area at that time than there are now, Brown notes.

Today, Williamsburg has a lot to offer tree-lovers. The city is home to 37 specimens recorded in the Virginia Big Tree Program. That’s the largest accumulation of big trees in any one location in the state of Virginia.

One iconic tree on the grounds is the Compton Oak. Planted in the 1930s, this tree is an impressive presence behind the Colonial courthouse. It’s a hybrid cross between a Quercus virginiana (live oak) and Quercus lyrata (overcup oak).

Brown says no known trees on the grounds date to the Colonial era, but a Southern magnolia can be seen on aerial photographs that pre-date the 1930s reconstruction of Williamsburg. Brown says the tree likely dates to the Civil War era.

Williamsburg is also home to a National Champion tree—the common jujube, or Chinese date.

Plants Map tags make landscape accessible

Brown learned about Plants Map as a tool for seeking arboretum accreditation when he attended the Virginia Master Gardener College Program.

Virginia Tech Professor Eric Wiseman, who maintains the Virginia Big Tree database, suggested the website and interactive plant tags  as a user-friendly way to fulfill the requirement for documenting trees.

The group has since installed 180 Plants Map tags throughout the historic grounds in Williamsburg. Brown likes the interactivity they allow. “The tags give visitors and especially school children an opportunity to take self-guided tours or have their teachers take them through here,” he said. Links to the Virginia Big Tree Program and other reference sites add to the information provided on each plant’s page.

Bassett Trace MapThe Williamsburg volunteers have used Plants Map collections to draw attention to special parts of the landscape. In addition to the Virginia Big Tree collection, other highlights include the historical Colonial Williamsburg Gardens, with 32 detailed sub-collections, and the Basset Trace Nature Trail, recently opened by Williamsburg Master Naturalists.

The trail runs through the 500-acre property the Rockefeller family lived on during the Williamsburg reconstruction. It includes wilder species that aren’t found in the more formal historic area, including sassafras and rhododendron, which are species Rockefeller was said to be fond of.

Volunteers will continue documentation

Brown hopes the Colonial Williamsburg Arboretum can reach Level III certification in two years. He continues his work on the project because he believes trees can play a big role in helping bring the area’s history to life.

For example—white oak was an important material for coopers to make barrels and buckets that were necessary to life in the colony. Pine trees were invaluable for their wood, but also for the resin, pitch and pine tar that could be gleaned to waterproof ships.

“You’ve got this horticultural history that ties into the development,” Brown said. “And people should understand that these trees have a purpose.”

To learn more about the Colonial Williamsburg Arboretum, visit plantsmap.com/organizations/colonial-williamsburg-foundation-arboretum.
To learn more about ArbNet and arboreta accreditation, visit plantsmap.com/organizations/arbnet.
To learn more about the Virginia Big Tree program, visit plantsmap.com/organizations/virginia-big-tree-program.