As Middleton Place prepares to remove the massive limb that recently snapped off its largest live oak, experts from across the nation want to examine it in hopes of answering an elusive question: Just how old are the Lowcountry's biggest trees?
Age estimates of the Middleton Oak and the Angel Oak on Johns Island have run anywhere from 500 years to more than 1,500, but the science is fuzzy at best.
The largest specimens accurately dated by tree ring experts, also known as dendrochronologists, have been only about three or four feet in diameter and have had fewer than 150 rings, said Dr. Henri Grissino-Mayer with the University of Tennessee's Department of Geography.
"Of course, these trees look ancient, but the reality is that looks are deceiving," he said. "This (Middleton Oak) is going to be an old tree, in my opinion, but the reality is, I would be surprised if it's over 500 years."
Because the Middleton Oak's limb is about seven feet in diameter, it will provide an unprecedented opportunity to determine just how fast these trees grow and how old they can get.
Grissino-Mayer is among the scientists interested in examining a cross section or "cookie" from the Middleton Oak's large limb, and he could get his wish.
Middleton Place not only wants to hear from scientists who want a piece of the oak but also to artists, craftsmen and others who have ideas for how best to use the wood.
Ever since the news broke that the Middleton Oak had lost two limbs earlier this month, people have suggested that some of the wood removed be used to make everything from picture frames to works of sculpture, said Pat Kennedy, Middleton Place's vice president of marketing.
Sam Watson of McClellanville suggested using some of the wood to make ballpoint pens, as he did recently with a limb from the Deerhead Oak in that town.
Kennedy said Middleton is interested in hearing the public's ideas quickly: The future use of the wood will affect the way the limb is removed from the site — a job that could begin in a week or two. Consultants recently recommended removing the limbs to improve the tree's chances of survival.
"The issue is really, once the branch comes down, then how do we slice it up from there?" Kennedy said.
The greatest value might be to science — and not just because of uncertainty about the age of large live oaks.
Edward Frank of the Eastern Native Tree Society said the large limb likely is only about 10 to 30 years younger than the rest of the tree, so its number of rings would give an accurate indication of the tree's approximate age.
Frank also said the epiphytes — the Spanish moss, polypody ferns and other small mosses and lichens — could be collected and measured. "No one has ever done a detailed study of the epiphytic communities," he said. They're epiphytic, not parasitic, because they don't take anything from the tree.
As for dating the limb, Frank said scientists wouldn't need an entire cross sections, just a wedge that included a span from the outer edge to a center point.
But he said a complete cross section, cleaned up and interpreted with dates corresponding to the different rings, could provide an interesting object for Middleton visitors.
"It would be one of the most impressive displays of tree rings anywhere in the eastern United States at least," said Frank, who lives in DuBois, Pa.
Grissino-Mayer said the tree also can shed important light into climate conditions in previous centuries. They essentially act as miniweather stations that record centuries worth of data about temperature and rainfall from a single location.
His previous research suggested the special quality of Stradivarius violins might stem not so much from a special varnish but from a cold spell during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. This created trees with narrower rings, and their wood produced a superior acoustical tone.
The Middleton Oak could contribute to one of the biggest political issues of the day: how much the world's climate is changing.
"Not all trees tell us that the 20th century is an aberration. Some trees tell us that the 20th-century climate has been equaled in the past," he said. "Other trees tell us that — whoa, no, 20th- century global warming is definitely occurring on an unprecedented scale. Who knows what the live oaks can tell us? Hopefully, they'll add information to the current controversy about global warming in the 20th century."
Other scientists might have other ideas about what the Middleton Oak's limb can teach us. Shortly after it snapped, Internet message boards that focus on trees began to buzz.
"It's not often we get a limb from a tree that's seven feet in diameter," he said. "This is probably a once in a lifetime chance. ... I think there are a lot of people in the U.S. who would love to analyze the wood from this thing."