Tree Information

Common Name: incense-cedar

Scientific Name: Calocedrus decurrens

Native/Naturalized: Native to North America

Status: alive

National Champion: no

Virginia Champion: yes

Circumference: 178 in.

Height: 135 ft.

Crown: 37 ft.

Points: 322

Date Last Measured: 2024

Last Measured by: John Peterson and Alex Adams

Date First Measured: 1974

One of the longest-tenured trees in the Virginia Big Tree Register. It also has an interesting story. The tree was originally nominated in 1974 by John A. Carter, Arthur W. Ordel, and George W. Walker. All three were foresters for Hardwood Lumber Corporation of Virginia, located in Lynchburg, VA at that time. They discovered the tree when they were walking the boundary of a timber sale. The tree stood near the foundation of an old homestead cabin owned by Shirley Hancock and family. The foresters identified the tree as northern white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis). This identification would be discovered as incorrect fifty years later.

The tree was not measured again until 1986, and the report at that time had limited information about the tree. When the tree was remeasured in 2015, the house had been abandoned for some years and was falling apart. The former yard area surrounding the tree was overgrown and returning to forest. No one questioned the tree's identification during this timeframe. Photos taken of the tree never showed any features of the tree besides the base of its large trunk, so there weren't characteristics of the tree visible to question its identity.

In early 2023, an arborist who had visited the tree a few years earlier contacted Virginia Big Trees with concern that the tree was misidentified. The arborist stated that the tree most closely resembled incense-cedar, and he was surprised to see a tree in the foothills of Virginia that looked like it was from the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

Later that year, a journalist contacted Virginia Big Trees wishing to do a photojournalism story about the big tree program and this tree in particular. The journalist met with the property owner and photographed the tree. When the news story was published, it was apparent from the photos that the tree was not northern white-cedar. In spring 2024, a dendrologist from Virginia Tech visited the tree and confirmed its identification as incense-cedar based on morphology of foliage and cones.

The tree has thrived in this location and continues to grow at a vibrant rate. Its current height places it among the tallest living trees on record in the big tree register. The age of the tree is unknown. It was already a fairly large tree when discovered in 1974. Measurements recorded at that time were 85' height, 111" trunk girth, and 50' crown spread. Measurements reported in 1986 were 124' height (likely overestimated), 130" trunk girth, and 55' crown spread. Measurements reported in 2015 were 120' height, 182" trunk girth (likely overestimated), and 38' crown spread (the tree had lost some long branches). Unfortunately, the tree was recognized as the national champion of northern white-cedar in 2019, but this will be corrected when the national register is updated in 2024.

There are several smaller incense-cedar on the property, indicating that the tree has reproduced. Several large stumps nearby suggest that there may have been multiple trees of this species on the property at one time. Undoubtedly, the original trees had been imported and planted. But how would someone in a rural Virginia community obtain seedlings of a species native to the west coast? A precautionary tale about jumping to conclusions in tree species identification based on assumptions about the species that should be in an area. The foresters back in 1974 had probably never heard of incense-cedar and drew a logical conclusion based on the native species they knew for the area.

Top: Jan 1975. Left to Right. Arthur W. Ordel, John A. Carter, George Walker. Center and Bottom: April 2024. John Peterson and Alex Adams.

Location of Tree

Tree is located in: Nelson

State Map

Land Owner: Private

GPS Coordinates: 37.71115, -78.927922

Owner Email: Private

Directions: Private. No visitors allowed. GPS shown here is approximate to the general area.

Owner Phone: Private

Contact Information

Contact Name: Eric Wiseman

Contact Email:

Contact Phone: 540-231-5148


Original Nominator(s): John A. Carter, Arthur W. Ordel, and George W. Walker

Additional Information

I.D. Fact Sheet

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