‘Big Mama’ dies

Published 9:26 pm Friday, December 5, 2008

COURTLAND—It’s a sad day at Big Mama’s house.

Big Mama, a bald cypress tree believed to be at least 1,500 years old and considered to be the largest tree in Virginia, has died, according to horticulturalists familiar with the tree.

Tom Smith, the natural heritage director with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, said the tree stands in the Cypress Bridge swamp along the Nottoway River near Courtland.

Byron Carmean of Suffolk, a Virginia Tech horticulture graduate and retired teacher from Chesapeake, discovered Big Mama in November 2005. The tree is about a 10-minute canoe ride upriver from where Old Bridge Road meets the Nottoway.

“The area is typically flooded, under 3 to 4 feet of water,” Smith said. “If conditions are right, you can canoe all the way around the tree and reach out and touch it.”

The tree was later measured to be 123 feet tall, 12½ feet in diameter and 35½ feet in circumference when measured from 4½ feet off the ground. It was named the largest tree in Virginia in 2006.

Carmean and Smith said they have visited Big Mama several times, and both men noticed the tree had a red-colored sap on its trunk last year. Carmean said that an arborist who had accompanied him and others to the tree later reported back that it was possible Big Mama was being attacked by a borer that feeds on bald cypress trees.

Further research into the tree’s demise was needed, Carmean said, to determine the ultimate cause of death.

Smith said that although Big Mama had lost her top and several large limbs, it was still standing.

“It’s not inclined to topple over,” Smith said, explaining that the tree has a shallow but very extensive root system. “It will be there for some time.”

According to Smith, Big Mama is on a 375-acre site that is currently owned by International Paper. An effort is under way for the Department of Conservation and Recreation to purchase the site from IP, and add the land to the state’s natural area preserve system. If successful, the property would be called the Cypress Bridge Natural Area Preserve.

“Big Mama was the landmark tree (in the area),” Smith said. “It’s a sad thing this tree has died, but it’s still a very significant site.”