A Community Mourns the Passing of Belward Farm’s Iconic Tree

Photo | Phil Fabrizio, PhotoLoaf The Belward Farm black gum tree greets the dawn on Earth Day, April 22, 2013, a cold but spring-like day glistening with dew.

Photo | Phil Fabrizio, PhotoLoaf
The Belward Farm black gum tree greets the dawn on Earth Day, April 22, 2013, a cold but spring-like day glistening with dew.

Reports of the demise of Belward Farm’s iconic black gum tree have inspired sadness in its many admirers. Among them are Tim Newell who has fond memories of his childhood summers on his late aunt’s farm and community members like Lakelands resident Sara Huneke who grew up down the road from it.

“As a child, I found it larger than life, majestic, sometimes frightening, but always beautiful. You never knew how those scraggly branches would look against the sky: imposing against a stormy sky, rustling gently in a lazy breeze, eerily electric in a pink sunset,” Huneke said. “It seemed to me a famous forever-tree, an immovable part of the landscape.”

Newell, who mourned the passing of the tree that “stood sentry above (my family’s) farm for centuries,” said its death “hit me hard. I cried when I heard.”

He noted that the tree earned wider acclaim after the Gaithersburg-native members of the popular rock band O.A.R. chose a representation of the tree for the cover of their 2003 album “In Between Now and Then.” The band reached out to him during his legal proceedings against Johns Hopkins University on behalf of his family, he added. Hopkins, the current owner of the property—which is the site of its future Belward Research Campus—did address the problem. David McDonough, who works in Facilities & Real Estate for Hopkins, said that Certified Master Arborist Joshua Nadler, of the Gaithersburg-based Bartlett Tree Experts, was hired to examine the tree.

“The black gum tree in the field is unsalvageable,” Nadler reported to McDonough on July 25. “Leaves came out this spring, but there is currently only one small limb with any green leaves. Those leaves also seem to be on their way out. The rest of the leaves that emerged turned brown and are holding on the stem, which is not a good sign.”

As to the cause of death, Nadler said he “did not see signs of a lightning strike or any indication of our primary invaders of pest/disease that are common to the area. Some secondary borers/ ambrosias are active, but they were not the main cause of death of this tree.”

“If herbicide was at play, we would expect dead areas in the turf of the pasture, but this is not present,” he continued. “Overall, I would conclude that based on the philosophy of Occam’s razor—where the simplest explanation is the most likely—that the excess rain in the area over the past two seasons has been simply too much for this old gem of a tree to handle, thus resulting in Phytophthora Root Rot and its current status.”

“As this was weather induced, there was not a practical measure to prevent this excess moisture in the root area,” McDonough said.

In conjunction with Nadler’s conclusion that “removal is the only option for this tree,” McDonough said that “when an arborist makes a recommendation, Johns Hopkins Facilities & Real Estate makes the decision to implement it.” He noted that the work is scheduled to be performed within four to six weeks (of July 25).

Newell trusts the arborist’s assessment. He said he has “made a formal request” that Hopkins plant a new tree on the site. “I even offered to replace it myself. That would be fitting,” he said. McDonough has instructed the arborist “to retain some portion of the downed tree” for Newell, who said he has received many such requests from people who loved the tree.

Poetic Tribute to the Belward Farm Tree

By Sara Huneke

“That tree” watched as Route 28 became wider and louder. The Angus cows eventually disappeared, giving way to an overgrown pasture.

It continued to leaf after the death of Belward Farm’s owner—and endured as battles ensued over safeguarding the farm’s  legacy.

It embodied resilience, standing fiercely, defiantly and gracefully in the face of overdevelopment and the receding natural world.

Because “that tree” watched us with benevolence, filled children’s eyes with wonder, reminded us to gaze skywards in the doldrums of our morning and evening commutes, and kept us believing that something simple and beautiful still remained.