MANTEO, N.C.

A tree grows in Manteo, hovering high over an old downtown house with a canopy that covers nearly half a city block.

It could be the biggest and one of the oldest southern magnolia trees in North Carolina. And nobody knew about it until this week.

The tree grows within 10 feet of Nancy Wood's back steps and is as big around as her shed. Roots at the base are as thick as a dock piling. One of its limbs has the diameter of a whiskey barrel and rises ominously over the top of her house.

"Have you ever seen a tree that big? That's the biggest tree I've ever seen," Wood said in her Outer Banks brogue. "That thing could whop me while I'm in there doing my laundry."

The tree will be nominated for recognition as the champion southern magnolia tree in North Carolina.

"Most trees this tall in Dare County have been blown down by a hurricane," said John Van Riper, a ranger with the North Carolina Forest Service stationed in Dare County.

Southern magnolias are among the best known and loved trees in the southeast. They grow large glossy leaves and bloom with flagrant creamy white flowers. Their shade can drop the temperature several degrees even on a hot July day. It can be one of the great southern pleasures to sip a lemonade under a magnolia tree.

They also have drawbacks. While it is an evergreen, leaves can fall year round and the thick canopy can prevent growing a lawn or a garden.

Last week, Van Riper took measurements of the Manteo tree's height, trunk circumference and canopy to see if the total points surpass those of the champion southern magnolia listed in Martin County.

He found it stands 69 feet tall with a canopy spreading 80 feet and a trunk girth of 156 inches. The Martin County tree is bigger around, but is shorter with a smaller canopy. State forestry experts calculate the sizes into all-around points to determine a champion. Results will come after foresters take more official measurements.

How long it's been around might be tougher to gauge.

"I don't have a coring tool big enough to age this tree," Van Riper said.

As massive as the tree is, it exists in relative obscurity behind Wood's two-story house. Van Riper was not aware of it. Town of Manteo planner Melissa Dickerson had not noticed its size before. Wood knew it was big, but did not know about the state record program.

That changed last month when Wood's daughter, Linda Dick, and son-in-law Ed, called a tree service company to ensure the tree was healthy — especially that big limb over Wood's house. Some dark markings on the limb might be trouble, said Ed Dick who lives in Pennsylvania.

"If there is anything wrong with it, we want to get it treated," he said. "We don't want it coming down on her when we're 500 miles away."

He called Nick Archibald with Atlantic Tree Services to report he has a tree that looked big and old enough to have been around since the Lost Colony. Archibald was skeptical until he arrived at the house for a look.

"I was immediately at a loss for words," he said. "It could probably tell us where the Lost Colony went."

Manteo has an ordinance that protects large trees, and this magnolia qualifies in a big way, Dickerson said.

"It would put Manteo on the map in a different way," Dickerson said. "It would be a coup for the town."

Jeff Hampton, 252-491-5272, jeff.hampton@pilotonline.com

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