The Virginia round leafed Birch, or Betula Uber, was the first tree to be protected by the Endangered Species Act. A botanist encountered it for the first time in 1918. For 60 years after it was identified no one could locate the tree, and it was presumed to be extinct. In 1975 it was rediscovered by a naturalist about a mile away from the original site. It is now believed that the original botanist erred in his identification of the location. Once the tree was rediscovered in 1975, there was a great effort to find more of the trees, but it became apparent that a second growth forest along a little known creek in Southwest Virginia was the only place it grew. Efforts began to protect to protect the 41 trees from any natural or man-made disasters. In 2003, there were only 8 of these trees in the wild.
I went to Virginia to find them, thinking that treasures such as these would be revered and well known. When we first arrived in the Jefferson National Forest, we went to the Pat Jennings Visitor Center. There we found Susan and Lil, two kind park guides. When we asked about the location of the Virginia round leaf Birch, they told me they had one right behind the center! One beautiful tree stands in isolation there. After getting numerous photographs of the tree we went back inside and asked if they might be able to help us find the stand of round leaf Birch that I had read about, as I would love to photograph it in a more natural setting. Lil was very helpful, laying out a map and showing us an area where she believed the trees to be.
Lacking any help from our GPS in a 30 mile area proved to be problematic when trying to locate a single tree in a forest! Lil thought the people at Shirley’s market, a small general store nearby, might be able to help, as they had been there for many years. We aimed the rental car in the direction of Shirley’s market, but passed it a few times as the name of the market was rather subdued. We stopped at a different gas station to ask where it was, and were finally directed back. The people at Shirley’s market did not know where the trees were, but attempted to help us find the area with a map. We then started driving and walking, trying out different directions along the creek that had been pointed out to us. We encountered a chain-link enclosure, and across from it, the Mount Rogers work area.
After pulling in and knocking on the door, we were told that it was a private area. and that they had no idea where the trees were. They had never even heard of them. Walking back across and all the way around the fenced in enclosure trying to locate the tree and up and down several trails – we were not having any luck. Since GPS was not available for about 30 miles, we drove back out until we could get the GPS signal, dropped the pin in the map, and drove back and attempted it all over again. Again, we encountered the fenced-in area and wondered if the tree might be inside of it, but as the fence was quite tall with barbed wire on top and no gate, we abandoned our quest for the day.
The next morning we went back to the Pat Jennings nature center that had been so helpful the day before. I took more photographs of the lone tree behind the center and was able to capture it with some spectacular light. This time there were more people available to answer our questions. Janita was able to tell us that the tree actually was within that fenced enclosure that we had explored the day before, so back we went. Armed with knowledge, this time we located the tree that was most visible in the enclosure, and took several photographs. Rather unimpressive photographs, as it was yards away and through a chain-link fence, but at least I had a chance to see that they were, in fact, protecting this rare tree.