Scott Wade: King of Pennsylvania’s Big Trees

Watch out for a black Jeep Commander with a “Licensed Arborist” decal right above the NRA sticker. That’s Scott Wade—and chances are his eyes aren’t on the road

Route 1 in Delaware County is a busy thoroughfare—so busy they’re adding lanes. That’s a problem for Scott Wade. He frowns through the windshield of his SUV as he barrels past a barren excavation site. “Oh boy,” he mutters. “I measured a lot of the trees they just leveled there.”

If the only time you notice trees is now, when their leaves change color, you’ll have trouble wrapping your head around Scott Wade. It can be a challenge even if you like trees. Because however much you like them, you don’t like them the way Wade does.

Take the hoary, rough-barked zelkova on the grounds of Delaware County Community College in Media. We’ve traipsed across a field to find it, only to discover an ugly brown gash in the earth just feet from its trunk. “Oh God, look what they did here,” Wade says. “People have no respect. They brought that sewer dangerously close to my tree.”

He turns in a sad circle, surveying the telltale signs of Growth And Progress. The college, built on an old estate, harbors five state champion trees—the largest of their species in all of Pennsylvania. And unless you were with Scott Wade, you’d never notice them. The weeping Norway spruce, the Japanese lilac, the Southern magnolia—they all just look like … trees.

The zelkova’s big, but not Sequoia National Forest big. To Wade, though, it’s crack cocaine. He’s the official keeper of the state’s champion tree list and website, Pabigtrees.com, and editor of Big Trees of Pennsylvania, just out in an updated 2011 edition. That means he spends his spare time looking for and measuring big trees—a labor of love, since his obsession doesn’t pay him a dime. “Zelkovas weren’t brought to this country until the 1840s, so this isn’t much more than 150 years old,” he says, patting the gray trunk hopefully. “They’re tough. Despite the damage from the sewer, it could rebound.”

The zelkova and all the rest are here because years ago, the Battles family, which lived here—you can still see two huge urns that adorned a terrace—did what rich folks all over the Delaware Valley did: They collected trees. They bought and traded seeds and saplings and laid out personal arboretums. Some of these collections are nothing more than ragtag remnants. Others are preserved in all their glory: the Tyler, Haverford, Morris and Scott arboretums, Longwood Gardens, Bartram’s Garden, Welkinweir, Chanticleer … Longwood, in particular, is a champion tree mecca. It’s got 61 state winners, thanks to Pierre du Pont’s penchant for exotic species. And Wade isn’t even done cataloging there yet.

There’s another reason for Philly’s unusual arboreal wealth. “Quakers are tree people,” Wade says. “Old Quaker estates typically have big trees.” They don’t, however, have old trees: “I hate it when people tell me they have a 600-year-old tree. There aren’t any.” Colonial settlers leveled Eastern Pennsylvania’s forests for lumber, firewood, charcoal to run iron furnaces, tannins to make leather. Upstate, a few patches of “old-growth” forest remain—Tionesta, Bald Eagle, Cook Forest. Everywhere else, the trees came down.

When Europeans got to the New World, “It was a dark, scary place, full of natives and cougars,” Wade says. Conrad Weiser, an 18th-century pioneer, claimed a squirrel could go from one end of the state to the other and never touch the ground. A new settler would clear-cut, then plant a fast-growing deciduous tree—sycamore, oak, tulip poplar—at the southwest corner of his house, for shade in summer and extra sunlight when leaves dropped in autumn. These are some of the oldest trees Wade finds.

It takes chutzpah to go tree-hunting. “I usually don’t ask permission,” he says, swinging into a Quaker retreat, Pendle Hill, in Wallingford. He parks his Jeep Commander where he pleases, and trespasses fearlessly. It helps that he’s funny and charming and looks a lot like Harrison Ford circa Witness. Champion trees couldn’t ask for a better champion.

We’re here to visit the state’s biggest American beech, on a dappled patch of lawn. It gets bigger as you get closer—much, much bigger, rippling up from the earth and spreading out into branches scarred by centuries of carved graffiti: arrows, hearts, initials, names.

Wade shows me how to measure a tree. First off, he takes the circumference at breast height. (Loggers measure at four and a half feet, presumably so they don’t have to reach up or bend down.) A tree gets one point per inch of girth; the beech is 262 inches around. Next he measures crown spread, pacing off from one end of the widest part of the tree’s canopy to the other: 101 feet. “It wouldn’t grow that wide in a forest,” he notes. There, trees grow upward, competing for sunlight. In a clearing on a lawn, they branch out. A tree only gets a quarter-point per foot of spread, to compensate.

Finally, he pulls out a laser range finder—a hunting tool—and pinpoints the top of the beech, 30 yards up. He uses a clinometer to compensate for the slope of the ground and the distance from the earth to his eye-level, doing the math in his head. “The ENTS came up with this way of calculating height,” he says. The acronym stands for the Eastern Native Tree Society, but it’s also the name of the tree shepherds in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga (and a nickname for society members). Wade says the ENTS focus on tall trees, not big trees; they perfected the tricky clinometer method of measuring. The beech earns another point per foot of height: 91. Grand total: 378 points. Pennsylvania’s biggest tree, a sycamore in Mercersberg, has 529.

Wade, who’s 44, grew up wandering the woods by his family’s house near French Creek. “When you find something you like, it comes naturally,” he says. “Tree names and characteristics stick to me.” He was ROTC at Penn State, then in the Army: “My plan was to put in 20 years, retire, and open a surf shop.” But military advancement proved slow, so he got out and into the landscape business. He was working at Our Lady of Angels convent in Aston when a co-worker who had taken a course at Tyler Arboretum said she thought the nunnery might harbor a champion tree. Wade had never heard of champion trees. “We went to Tyler and bought the book”—Big Trees of Pennsylvania, which lists the measurements of all the winners. It turned out the convent had five state champs, including a bitternut hickory, a saucer magnolia and a European copper beech. Wade was hooked.

He just got the proofs for the 2011 edition of Big Trees. He signed on as editor for the previous edition, in 2006. Shortly after helping to launch the website Pabigtrees.com, he became a stay-at-home dad to his three kids, now 12, 11 and five. “I was sort of bored,” he says. He’d been giving big-tree tours at Longwood and eventually took a part-time job measuring and cataloging trees there, all the while maintaining Pabigtrees.com, which is searchable by genus and county. “If the state champion white oak is way out in Clarion County, you’re not likely to visit it,” says Wade. “But if there’s a champion in the next town over from you, maybe you’d go see that.” Anyone can nominate potential champions at the website; Wade or a state forester measures those that look promising.

He hopes to keep putting out new editions of the book ($15 at local arboretums) every five years. It’s underwritten by donors—Longwood, Haverford College, Bartlett Tree Experts, and private folks, including Wade. Given that none of this except the Longwood cataloguing is paid work, I ask if Wade’s got family wealth. He’s perplexed. “My wife and I,” he says—she’s a financial analyst for CBRE Clarion Securities—“are the first in our families to go to college. She does pretty well, but we don’t have money.” Big trees are his hobby. “Could be coin-collecting,” he says. “Could be skiing. That’s really expensive.”

WADE PARKS—illegally—at a turn-in off Route 1, and we wade through marauding Japanese stilt grass—“I hate this stuff!”—toward the Lafayette Sycamore. Actually, there are two Lafayette Sycamores—this, and one in Valley Forge Park. Legend has it the young French general sheltered here after he was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine. We measure the circumference. “Wow, it’s grown a lot!” Wade says—from 21 feet the last time he was here to 23.4.

The sycamore is hollow and beat-up—“Most champions are”—and sports lightning protection: braided copper wires running from a lightning rod at the top down to the ground and then away from the trunk, out beyond the edge of the canopy. Every five years, the braids have to be updated, or the bark grows over them. Maintaining a tree like this isn’t easy, or cheap.

Trees die. That’s a shame, but it’s the only way to know their age. A while back, a big oak by Wade’s kids’ soccer field fell. Though 19 feet around, it was only 74 years old: “I was so surprised when I counted the rings,” he says. Tree rings don’t just prove age; they also record climate. Wade shows me on a stump: Narrow rings are drought years, and wide ones are good years. The most rings he ever counted were on a white oak stump in Yeadon: 333.

It’s strange to think of Lafayette lying here, bleeding. The tree must have been big even then. Wade points out the tracks of old Baltimore Pike, deep in the grass. Wagon wheels and hooves made those ruts, century after century. The sycamore watched, the whole time.

BACK IN THE JEEP, driving toward Longwood Gardens, Wade cranes as we pass a massive sycamore behind the Chadds Ford Township building: “That’s not looking so good.” He would have made a great pioneer, like Conrad Weiser: moving through those dark, scary forests, noticing the big burr oak there, the fungus on the ground, the stray seeds. There’s only so much pioneering a stay-at-home dad with three kids can do, though.

At Longwood, he parks and leads me to a misshapen mess of branches. “This used to be the national champion white mulberry,” he says. “It’s dying. As are we all.”

If Wade didn’t do what he does, who knows if anyone else would? When he first took over the big-tree list, he noticed that one guy was responsible for many of the nominations: Rick Koval. He was the Colonel Kurtz of big-tree hunters: “Nobody knew anything about him. I finally tracked him down with the Internet.” Wade pauses. “He told me he just isn’t into it anymore. It was sort of disappointing to contact him.”

But not as disappointing as the vacation Wade just spent in Jackson Hole. “There were, like, five species of trees—two deciduous and three evergreens.” He shakes his head in pity. “I told the guys there: That’s it? That’s all the species you have?”