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Empty thrones: somewhere out there royalty is just waiting to be recognized. Long live the king--wherever it is.

They are out there. Some may live their entire lives without ever being seen by human eyes. Others may live among us, seen by thousands yet unrecognized, like royalty dressed as paupers. They are the biggest trees of their kind but they cannot lay claim to their rightful throne until someone discovers, measures, and nominates them.

Most of these true kings and queens of the forest are represented by lesser nobility, or even the occasional servant of the court who spends a few surreptitious and gleeful moments on the throne. The National Register of Big Trees lists the biggest known trees and can rarely claim absolute knowledge of the absolute ruler of a given species. We honor these surrogates, just as we honor Olympian gold medalists in spite of the probability that there are faster and stronger people somewhere in the world whose potential remains hidden. But the current Register lists 94 species for which the throne is completely empty. No king. No queen. Not even a naughty page.

Of course, before 1940, when AMERICAN FORESTS initiated the Big Tree Program, all thrones were empty. For the first several decades it was essentially left to nominators to choose which trees needed a champion. Most were native or naturalized species but quite a few ornamentals and hybrids were crowned. In 1980, after adopting Elbert Little Jr.'s Checklist of United States Trees as the authority for which species to include, AMERICAN FORESTS began to print a list of Species Without Champs in each installment of the Register. Over the next 20 years, nominators reduced the number of empty thrones by an average of eight per year, from 257 in 1980, to 93 in 2000. During that period, each successive Register saw a reduction in crownless species with highs of 28 found in 1984, 36 in 1994, and 44 in 2000.


But in 2002, for the first time in Register history, we gained empty thrones and shot up to 99. The 2004 Register established an all-time low of 85, but this year we're back up to 94. Actually, 12 empty thrones in 2004 were filled in 2006, but another 24 species were dethroned and left without a successor.

Upon closer examination, 94 empty thrones isn't that bad. Twenty-four of these were occupied in 2004 but those champs have since either died (17), couldn't be found (2), had been misidentified (2), or were too small to be a tree (3). Crucially, none had potential successors waiting in the files of AMERICAN FORESTS for their chance at glory. Until the current Register came out (the one you are holding), big tree hunters didn't know to look for a replacement. So a small number of temporarily empty thrones are to be expected.

With two years between published Registers, you might also expect the more unfamiliar or rare species to stay on the empty thrones list for a few rounds before a tree is nominated. Of the 94 empty thrones, 37 were once occupied. Most had a crowned tree within the last decade but a royal Pensacola hawthorn was last recognized in 1982. The last Fallax pinyon pines king finished its reign in 1978; the guava's throne has been empty since 1971.

Another nine empty thrones were formerly filled but not with true monarchs. The species they represented--like American snowbell, Georgia holly, and Florida crossopetalum--infrequently attain the stature of trees. In the 1990s the philosophy at AMERICAN FORESTS was that any specimen, no matter how small, could be the champion if was the biggest one reported at that time. Later, after a number of twiggy things were crowned, it was decided that a specimen should meet accepted standards for being a tree--at least 9.5 inches in circumference and 13 feet tall. After all, this is not the National Register of Big Trees and Shrubs.

This means that, out of 94 currently empty thrones, 57 species have never had a true champion, and 48 have never even had a nominee. Out of a possible 826 species and varieties in the Register, that's not too bad. But the goal has always been to have a full roster of big trees so here is some information to help you find a lost champion, and get yourself in the record books.


Let's start with the easy ones. These are the thrones of recently dead or disqualified trees that had no backup wannabes. Sometimes quite a few thrones are vacated because of a concentrated effort by state big tree coordinators to relocate their state's champs. They often find that some champs have died, some have lost points due to damage, or some have been mismeasured or misidentified.

Empty thrones in 2006 include only a few familiar species like sweet crabapple, turkey oak, northern pin oak, and sweetgum. You are welcome to nominate a tree to replace them, but keep in mind the former champs scored 116, 218, 335, and 431 points, respectively. Other recently vacated thrones, with the previous champ's point totals: cajeput-tree (300), castorbean (49), Allegheny chinkapin (155), Ozark chinkapin (124), littleleaf cyrilla (61), September elm (271), Lindheimer hackberry (127), scrub hickory (121), screwbean mesquite (84), and water-elm (313). Your tree doesn't have to beat those numbers but, unless it's the only nominee, it must be close to have a chance at royal fame.

The next category of empty thrones are species that may or may not be common; the trick is to find a specimen that is actually a tree. According to my field guides, these species rarely grow taller than 15 or 20 feet, but that's tall enough to be a champion. It is tempting, and allowed, to fill a throne with the first tree-sized specimen you happen upon. But as the Chinese philosopher Mencius said, "To give the throne to another man would be easy; to find a man who shall benefit the kingdom is difficult."

Tree species that are usually shrubs are scattered across the country. Hunt for tree-sized laurel sumac, lemonade sumac, or greenbark ceanothus in the chaparral of coastal southern California. The littleleaf sumac grows on dry slopes and plains from southeastern Arizona to central Texas. In south Texas, look for Texas forestiera. Any Geyer willow in western mountains, or any silky willow in the East, is a potential champ if more than 15 feet tall. Actually, most of the nine willows without champions are shrubs more often than trees; you'd be lucky to find specimens of any taller than 30 feet. Some Florida species reach just above tree size, some with telltale names like bitterbush and maidenbrush.

Many champion trees are discovered casually by people who happen to know a big whatever-it-is when they see it. But others, like quite a few with empty thrones, require a special and targeted effort to find because their species is very rare, isolated, or found only in a small part of the country. The range of the seaside alder includes Oklahoma, Maryland, Delaware, and Georgia, but it occupies only a few small areas in those states and is found nowhere in between. The last champion Kenai birch grew 47 feet tall, but to fill its vacated throne you'll have to search in Alaska. The rare and critically imperiled Kelsey locust, a small relative of black locust with narrow leaves and pink flowers, grows in the wild only in the western mountains of North Carolina.

California is touted as one of the floristic hotspots of the world with more than 1,400 plant species, including at least 25 trees, found nowhere else in the world. The distinctive bristlecone fir, easily recognized by its very narrow spirelike crown, is restricted to the Santa Lucia Mountains south of Monterey. Try looking in the Cone Peak area, but keep in mind the former champ was more than 4 feet thick and 182 feet tall. To find the first-ever champion feltleaf ceanothus, take a boat out to Santa Cruz or Santa Catalina Island. Go in February when they stand out in their coat of pale blue flowers. Other Channel Island endemic species will be added to the Register soon (see page 10). North of the border, extreme southern California is also the only place to find the first national champion desert apricot and Mexican fremontia. However, a nomination for the latter species is best left to botanists and conservationists, since the U.S. population has declined to fewer than 100 individuals.


Florida also has a large number of species found nowhere else in the U.S. In fact, the Sunshine State is the only place to look for about one-third of the species without a champion. Half of those are found only in the southern counties of Collier, Dade, and Monroe. The trick, and joy, is to learn how to identify subtropical trees. Would you know a cocoplum, graytwig, guiana-plum, seven-year-apple, long-stalk stopper, or balsam torchwood if you saw one?

This leads us to our last category of empty throne species, the ones which are hard to identify. In a few cases, the problem lies in a lack of easily available information. The Fallax pinyon pine, listed in the Register as Pinus edulis var. fallax, a variety of two-leaf pinyon pine, has not had a champion since a 98-point tree wore the crown in 1978. It's not even mentioned in my field guides. But with some Internet sleuthing I found out that it is now treated as a variety of singleleaf pinyon pine (Pinus monophyla), and that it is primarily found in Arizona, although its range spills over a bit into each of the neighboring states. If you stay away from extreme western and northwestern Arizona, any big singleleaf pinyon pine you find in that state should be eligible to wear the Fallax pinyon pine crown.

Nine of the empty thrones are willows: balsam, basket, dusky, geyer, littletree, northwest, river, satiny, and silky. Only the balsam (28 points), dusky (87), and silky (97) have had former champions. Willows are usually found along streams and lakes, although they form upland thickets in the mountains and subarctic regions. They are readily identified as a group but the species sometimes fall into that field guide category of "notoriously difficult to distinguish." To do better than "Salix sp." you may need a good hand lens--or an expert botanist.

If willow identification gives you a headache, you can either chew the bark (the original source of aspirin) or just be grateful you are not trying to identify a hawthorn. In North America, these are the most notorious of all trees. If field guides were like old maps, hawthorns would be placed near the edge with the warning: Here there be monsters!

You know you're in trouble when the number of species recognized by different authorities varies from 35 to over 1000! Even George Petrides, author of the Peterson Field Guides to eastern and western trees, throws up his hands and includes only four species. The implication is if your tree isn't one of those four, surrender at 'Crataegus sp.' Unless you're a skilled botanist, you'll probably have to find one to identify and nominate a barberry, beautiful, Pensacola, Brainerd, Gregg, Harbison, Reverchon, threeflower, or (yikes!) willow hawthorn. For all but the first three, you'd be the first to fill their throne.

Fortunately, most of the empty thrones are not hawthorns. And with a concentrated effort, we can reduce the Species Without Champs list to just the recent dethronees that lack an immediate successor.

In J. R. R. Tolkein's Middle Earth, the people of Gondor waited a thousand years for the return of the king. The people of AMERICAN FORESTS await the return of 91 kings. But with your help, it won't be long until "the crownless again shall be king."

Whit Bronaugh writes from Eugene, Oregon.

Story and photos by Whit Bronaugh



There are 94 trees included on AMERICAN FORESTS' National Register of Big Trees that do not currently have a champion rooted to the throne. Grab your tree ID book, this list, and maybe your favorite botanist and start hunting! Species with a * after their names have never had a champion. Look in the parentheses for a list of states in which the species can be found. A # indicates a naturalized species.
Species Common Name Scientific Name

ALDER Seaside Alnus maritima (OK, MD, DE, GA)
ANISE-TREE Yellow Illicium parviflorum * (FL)
APPLE Sweet Crab Malus coronaria (NY, IN, MO, KS, TN,
 AL, GA, SC, NC)
APRICOT Desert Prunus fremontii * (CA)
ARAUCARIA Cunningham Araucaria cunninghamii (HI)
BAYBERRY Evergreen Myrica heterophylla * (NJ, PA, DE)
BIRCH Kenai Betula papyrifera var. kenaica (AK)
BITTERBUSH Picramnia pentandra * (FL)
BURNINGBUSH Western Euonymus occidentalis * (WA, OR)
CAJEPUT-TREE Melaleuca quinquenervia # (FL)
CAMPHOR-TREE Cinnamomum camphora # (FL)
CAPER Limber Capparis flexuosa * (FL)
CASTORBEAN Ricinus communis (FL)
CEANOTHUS Feltleaf Ceanothus arboreus * (CA)
CEANOTHUS Greenbark Ceanothus spinosus * (CA)
CHINKAPIN Allegheny Castanea pumila (NJ, PA)
CHINKAPIN Ozark Castanea ozarkensis (MO, AR, OK)
COCOPLUM Chrysobalanus icaco * (FL)
COLUBRINA Coffee Colubrina arborescens * (FL)
COLUBRINA Cuba Colubrina cubensis * (FL)
CROSSOPETALUM Florida Crossopetalum rhacoma * (FL)
CYRILLA Littleleaf Cyrilla racemiflora var. parvifolia
 (GA, FL)
DOWNY-MYRTLE Rhodomyrtus tomentosa # * (FL)
ELDER Velvet Sambucus velutina (CA, NV, AZ)
ELM September Ulmus serotina (KY, IL, TN, AL, GA, AR,
FLORIDA-PRIVET Forestiera segregata (FL)
FIDDLEWOOD Berlandier Citharexylum berlandieri * (TX)
FIR Bristlecone Abies bracteata (CO, ID, OR., CA)
FORESTIERA Texas Forestiera angustifolia * (TX)
FREMONTIA Mexican Fremontodendron mexicanum * (CA)
GRAYTWIG Schoepfia chrysophylloides (FL)
GUAVA Psidium guajava # (FL, CA)
GUIANA-PLUM Drypetes lateriflora (FL)
HACKBERRY Lindheimer Celtis lindheimeri (TX)
HAWTHORN Barberry Crataegus berberifolia * (IL, KS, TX,
 MS, KY, MO, LA, AR)
HAWTHORN Beautiful Crataegus pulcherrima (FL)
HAWTHORN Brainerd Crataegus brainerdii * (MI, OH, PA)
HAWTHORN Gregg Crataegus greggiana * (TX)
HAWTHORN Harbison Crataegus harbisonii * (TN, AL, MS)
HAWTHORN Pensicola Crataegus lacrimata (FL)
HAWTHORN Reverchon Crataegus reverchonii * (MO, KS)
HAWTHORN Threeflower Crataegus triflora * (GA, AL, MS)
HAWTHORN Willow Crataegus saligna * (CO)
HICKORY Scrub Carya floridana (FL)
HOLLY Dune Ilex opaca var. arenicola * (FL)
HOLLY Georgia Ilex longpipes * (SC, GA, LA)
HOLLY Sarvis Ilex amelanchier * (NC, SC, GA, FL, LA)
HOLLY Tawnberry Ilex krugiana (FL)
LICARIA Florida Licaria triandra * (FL)
LOCUST Kelsey Robinia kelseyi * (NC, TN, KY)
MAIDENBRUSH Savia bahamensis * (FL)
MAIDENBRUSH Marlberry Ardisia escallonioides * (FL)
MESQUITE Screwbean Prosopis pubescens (TX, NM, AZ, UT, NV,
NECTANDRA Florida Nectandra coriacea * (FL)
OAK McDonald Quercus macdonaldii * (CA)
OAK Northern pin Quercus ellipsoidalis (MI, WI, MN)
OAK Turkey Quercus laevis (VA, NC, SC, GA, FL, AL,
PAWPAW Bigflower Asimina obovata * (NC, SC, GA, FL)
PEPPERTREE Brazil Schinus terebinthifolia # (TX, CA)
PINE Fallax pinyon Pinus edulis var. fallax (CO, UT)
PLUM Canada Prunus nigra (MI, MN, IA, IL, IN, OH,
 WV, CT, RI, MA, VT, NH, ME)
PRICKLY-ASH Biscayne Zanthoxylum coriaceum * (FL)
PRICKLY-PEAR Brazil Opuntia brasiliensis # * (FL)
PRIVET Chinese Ligustrum sinense # (NC, LA)
SAPIUM Jumping-bean Sapium biloculare * (AZ CA)
SEVEN-YEAR-APPLE Genipa clusiifolia (FL)
SNOWBELL American Styrax americanus * (VA, NC, SC, GA)
SNOWBELL Bigleaf Styrax grandifolius * (VA, FL, TX, KY)
SNOWBELL Sycamore-leaf Styrax platanifolius * (TX)
STOPPER Long-stalk Psidium longipes * (FL)
STOPPER Twinberry Myrcianthes fragrans var. fragrans *
SUGAR-APPLE Annona squamosa # * (FL.)
SUMAC Kearney Rhus kearneyi * (CA)
SUMAC Laurel Rhus laurina * (CA)
SUMAC Lemonade Rhus integrifolia * (CA)
SUMAC Littleleaf Rhus microphylla * (TX, OK, NM, AZ)
SWEETGUM Liquidambar styraciflua # (NJ, MD, DE,
 PA, VA, OH, IL, AK, TX, FL, WV)
TAMARISK Small-flower Tamarix paryiflora # (CA)
TORCHWOOD Balsam Amyris balsamifera * (FL)
TREE TOBACCO Nicotiana glauca (FL, TX, NM, AZ, CA)
TREMA West Indies Trema lamarckiana * (FL)
VAUQUELINIA Fewflower Vauquelinia pauciflora * (AZ)
WATER-ELM Planera aquatica (NC, SC, FL, GA, AL,
 MS, LA, TX, OK, MO, IL, KY, TN)
WHITE-MANGROVE Laguncularia racemosa (FL)
WILLOW Balsam Salix pyrifolia (MN, WI, MI, NY, ME)
WILLOW Basket Salix viminalis * (MS, ME, CT, RI, VT))
WILLOW Dusky Salix melanopsis (WA, OR, UT, CA, WY)
WILLOW Geyer Salix geyerana * (MT, AZ, CO, WY)
WILLOW Littletree Salix arbxsusculoides * (AK)
WILLOW Northwest Salix sessilifolia * (WA, OR)
WILLOW River Salix fluviatilis * (ME, MN., SD, KS,
WILLOW Satiny Salix pellita * (MN, WI, MI, NY, ME,
 VT, NH)
WILLOW Silky Salix sericea (AK, WA, OR, CA, ID, MT)
WINTERBERRY Smooth Ilex laevigata * (NY, ME, SC)
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Title Annotation:National Register of Big Trees
Author:Bronaugh, Whit
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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