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A Tall Treasure

The mighty Compton oak is a distinctive feature of the Historic Area’s landscape


The massive oak tree that grows on the edge of Market Square beckons visitors with branches that reach out like wide, open arms. This fast-growing and sturdy specimen, tolerant of drought and cold, has for decades provided a shady umbrella for passersby.

C. Justus Brouwers, the first landscape superintendent for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, is said to have found the tree during a walk in the Pungo woods near Virginia Beach, Virginia. According to local legend, Brouwers transplanted the young tree to Williamsburg, probably sometime between 1932 and 1936, around the time of the Colonial capital’s restoration. A study of photographs taken before the Restoration found no Compton oak on Market Square.

Today, it’s the largest Compton oak known to exist in the United States. Featured in the Virginia Big Tree Project database, which catalogs the state’s largest species of trees, the Historic Area’s Compton oak stands some 70 feet tall and 97 feet wide with a trunk measuring 14 feet in circumference.

“That’s probably one of the most signature trees that we have at Colonial Williamsburg,” said Jon Lak, a Foundation Landscape manager. The tree doesn’t begin as an acorn. It is a natural hybrid between a live oak and an overcup oak, and it’s not so easy to replicate. “A lot of colleges and different botanists have tried to create that hybrid in a lab and they’ve been unable to do so,” Lak said.

Retired historic gardener Wesley Greene, in answering a visitor inquiry about the tree in 2010, noted that a number of Compton oak seedlings had been planted around Williamsburg. “Most show traits more resembling the overcup oak...so not only is it the largest Compton oak in the country, I think it is the most handsome,” he wrote.

Guests love the tree, says Chip Bixler, a donor, volunteer and longtime Compton oak lover himself. “It might have been a place where they met, a place where they proposed — it means something to them,” he said.

The Compton oak in the Historic Area is visible in aerial photographs from 1940 and by 1979, it had begun to take its distinctive shape. (Tom Green/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

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