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Area claims Pa.'s largest tree

April 24, 2000|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Waynesboro

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Most motorists driving along Corner Road south of Mercersburg probably pass through the broad farm country without ever knowing they are passing Pennsylvania's biggest tree.

The giant, four-trunk sycamore stands off the road behind Lester and Florence Risser's stone farmhouse. Its canopy spreads out far above the two-story house, but the tree hardly seems unique from the road since several tall, but less imposing, sycamores keep it company.

The four trunks rising from the base of the giant tree measure 31 feet, 1 inch around. The tree stands 102 feet high with a canopy spread of 122 feet, according to the state's Bureau of Forestry.

Philip Wert, a forester at Buchanan State Forest in Fayetteville, Pa., in 1991 nominated the tree for measurement as the state's largest tree and it gained the distinction later that year.

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It replaced another sycamore with a 25-foot circumference in Lower Paxton Township about eight miles east of Harrisburg, Pa., said Norman Lacasse, supervisor of urban forestry for the forestry bureau.

Lacasse, who lives in the township, said he was disappointed that his hometown tree lost the designation.

He has never seen the Risser sycamore, he said.

The Rissers bought the 205-acre farm in 1972, Lester said. They came from Lancaster County, Pa., where they lost a similar-size farm to the Pennsylvania Fish and Game Commission. He said the state took more than 3,200 acres of contiguous farmland from dozens of owners, mostly through eminent domain, to create the Middle Creek Waterfowl Project.

He and four neighboring farmers were the last holdouts. "We had no choice but to leave. They were going to evict us," he said.

The couple had no idea when they bought the farm on Corner Road that on it grew such a prize. There has been no scientific research to determine the age of the tree, but Risser believes it's more than 200 years old.

"We cut down a big cottonwood on the lawn and counted 220 growth rings in it," he said. "I know the sycamore isn't any less old."

Lacasse said sycamores can stand for 400 years or longer provided they survive lightning storms and high winds. He said it would be wise if the Rissers gave the township or some other official group a right of way to the tree so lightening rods could be installed on it. Such protections are common for important or historic trees, he said.

Risser mows a path to and around the tree to make it easier for people to see it up close, although he said he doesn't get many requests. It stands in a pasture ringed by an electric fence to keep cattle in.

The tree seems healthy and heals itself by covering with new growth injuries caused when a branch falls off, Risser said. The lone obvious exception is at the butt of a large branch that was cut off by a power company because it threatened a line.

"That cut never healed," Risser said, pointing to a rotting hole in the end of a large branch. "It really upset me when they did that."

Virginia Myers, spokeswoman for the 1,200-member Pennsylvania Forestry Association in Mechanicsburg, Pa., said the organization has an ongoing contest to log the state's largest trees. It is compiling computer data on trees for a new book on the state's biggest trees to replace one published in 1989.

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