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Poplar science

State's second-oldest tulip poplar gets a needed health checkup

State's second-oldest tulip poplar gets a needed health checkup

January 26, 2006|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

SAINT JAMES

tiffanya@herald-mail.com

Engineers and state forestry officials gave Maryland's second oldest tulip poplar tree - a 135-foot tall, 8-foot wide behemoth at Saint James School - the equivalent of an MRI Wednesday to determine whether it was in danger of falling.

"If one of those fell, you'd be a lot shorter than you are right now," said engineer Tony Mucciardi, pointing out the tree's hefty branches to a handful of Saint James students standing beneath its canopy.

The 282-year-old tree would have to be removed if the tests revealed too many structural weaknesses, said George Eberling, a Washington County forester for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

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Engineers were able to create a virtual saw cut of the historic tree based on the reflections of rays they bounced off the trunk, Mucciardi said.

Engineers said they did not detect much hollowness in the tree's trunk, but Eberling said more-definitive answers would come in a month, after an arborist reviewed the results.

Over time, tree trunks become hollow and tree roots thin out, increasing the likelihood of tipping.

"They're beautiful, but if they fall and hurt somebody, they're not so beautiful," Mucciardi said.

The tulip poplar is native to Washington County, and it's rare for a tree to live longer than 100 to 150 years, Eberling said.

Rich Bettencourt, the school's business manager, said the school has gone to great lengths to preserve the tree. Not only is it the only tree on the campus that is fertilized and has a wiring system to hold up heavy branches, Bettencourt said it has a "lightning suppression system."

"The tree is as important to the school and the (alumni) because its been there long before the school started," Bettencourt said.

Saint James School was established in 1842, Bettencourt said.

School policy prohibits students from setting foot on the grounds surrounding the tree, explained Hasan Pasha, a senior at Saint James.

He was one of the few students allowed near the tree, where several students withstood the numbing wind and cold to help engineers perform the tests. The entire process took a couple of hours.

"It's pretty cool, I guess," said Hasan, 17, of Hagerstown.

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