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Nobility in the underbrush.


Standing unheralded in the Virginia woods is a royal presence that is the arboreal equivalent of any head of state. People don't throng there to rub shoulders with it. There is not even a particularly well-worn path to the yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) that is the largest tree in Virginia and the largest yellow poplar (known widely as tuliptree) in the United States. But if reverence is due nobility, everyone visiting this tree should kneel.

Like many tree sovereigns, this one dominates a spot more congenial to the tree than to the people who might want to visit it. Tucked away between Smith Street and Route 460 in Bedford, Virginia, the wooded route to the tree is marked only by a chained-off drive leading to an abandoned shack and a tumbledown dog pen. Behind the pen and the hunting dog who stands sentinel is a nearly obliterated path that leads downhill to the tree. The first-time visitor might miss the path, but if he makes his way down the hill through the underbrush, he won't miss the yellow poplar. Royalty dominates the landscape when the trunk of this kingly tree appears.

Growing conditions must have been perfect for this monarch. A nearby gully suggests ample water, as does rumor of a mineral spring at the tree's base. How long must it have been sipping from the earth to have grown this 124-foot height, 122-foot spread, and 30-foot, three-inch girth? Maybe not as long as it looks. What looks like age could just be amplitude in this environmentally favored tree. But whatever is responsible for its size, the Bedford yellow poplar is a take-your-breath-away tree.

Experiencing the tree with no one else around makes it seem all the bigger. To see a phenomenon like this, we usually stand in line, wait behind rope barriers, and follow signs describing what we need to know about the scene. At the Bedford yellow poplar, the only evidence of other visitors is a carpenter's pallet propped against the trunk, suggesting that children, at least, have climbed into the tree. There is also a post that may once have held an explanatory marker, but now the tree is left to speak for itself, which it does eloquently.

Alone in a grove of yellow poplars, Whitman once said that he experienced a presence that neither chemistry nor reasoning nor aesthetics could explain. In Bedford, this one yellow poplar is a grove. I walked around it, sat beneath it, tried to climb it. I spread my arms and embraced it, cheek to bark. Monumental was the message it repeated in my ear.

As I left the tree and headed up the hill, I met two strangers coming down. We passed like Pilgrims sharing a secret about where to find true nobility.
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Title Annotation:National Register of Big Trees; yellow poplar
Author:Hugo, Nancy Ross
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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