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From little acorns champion oaks grow: a journey through the life of one of America's most prolific trees.

Several hundred years ago, deep in the ancient virgin forests of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, an eastern gray squirrel forgot where he buried an acorn. The acorn germinated, survived the browsing of deer, the gnawing of rabbits, and the chomping of caterpillars and shot up to the light. Decades passed. In the mid-1700s, acorns and leaves of other trees like it were shipped off to Sweden where a man named Carolus Linnaeus decided they were different than the four North American oaks he had already named and described. He called the new species Quercus prinus, after the Latin and Greek for 'fine tree' and 'oak.'


Back in America, Quercus prinus was better known as mountain or rock oak, after its preferred habitat; tanbark oak after its preferred use; and nowadays, chestnut oak after the shape of its leaves. Oblivious to all this name calling, our tree in the Smokies kept on growing and dropping tens of thousands of acorns in the hopes that a few would enjoy its luck and success. Chestnut oak bark is chock full of tannin, the evolutionary chemical weapon of mast indigestion. Whenever leaf munchers attacked our chestnut oak, it flushed its foliage with tannins and released more into the air as a chemical call to arms to nearby oaks. But evolution has a way of backfiring when humans get involved. From Maine to Alabama, the armor of chestnut oaks looked like gold to the tanners who often felled the great trees, stripped the bark, and left the naked wood to rot.


Our tree survived at first through inaccessibility, and, since 1930, by the foresight of conservationists who established Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Secure from the tanners, loggers, and settlers, our chestnut oak quietly and consistently laid on wood as it entered the prime of its old growth.

Meanwhile, in 1940, AMERICAN FORESTS began the search for big trees. The first of all national champion trees to be officially nominated was another chestnut oak growing near Suffield, Connecticut. Connecticut's oak reigned only a short time until a much larger tree in Maryland was nominated by the 'father of big trees' himself, Fred Besley.

The crown passed on to other mighty chestnut oaks until one day in 1997, Arthur Stupka, Will Blozan, and Michael Davie discovered and measured our by-then kingly tree in the Smokies. It towered 144 feet high, spread 70 feet wide, and sported a girth of more than 18 feet.

Such is the fate of oaks that a tree crowned as the "king" of its species may owe its royalty to the whims of an absentminded squirrel.

Similar stories for other oaks and their champions have played out all across America, but the history of oaks goes much further back in time. Oaks evolved during the Cretaceous Period some 95 million years ago, a good 30 million years before a certain asteroid is thought to have made history of the dinosaurs.

Ever since, oaks have formed an important, sometimes dominant component of forests on all wooded continents except Australia. Today there are more than 600 species of oaks worldwide. Closer to home, Quercus is, by far, the most diverse genus of tree in North America with 58 native species and nine varieties currently recognized in AMERICAN FORESTS' National Register of Big Trees.

This great diversity of "fine trees" is concentrated in the Southeast where several states have more than 30 species. Texas has the most--35 species--because it overlaps the ranges of oaks that are restricted to the southeastern forests, southwestern woodlands and mountains, or the south-central plains.

California has only 10 oaks that reach tree size but three are endemic while three others are shared only with Mexico. Every continental state has native oak trees except Alaska and Idaho.



National champion oaks are likewise widely distributed. In the last Register, the 75 champion and co-champion oaks, representing 64 species and varieties, were scattered among 20 states from Washington and California to New York and Florida. Most are concentrated in the southern tier states, which have longer growing seasons and are home to many oak species not found further north.

Texas again comes out in front with 11 oak champs, followed by Georgia (9); Virginia, California, and Florida (each with 7); and Arizona (6). The lack of competition for the crowns of regional endemic oaks accounts for much of the success of Texas, California, and Arizona, but the standing of Georgia, Virginia, and Florida probably has more to do with the effort and skill of big tree hunters.

The adjacent states of Alabama and North Carolina have just one oak champion each, and South Carolina has none, even though these states support a comparable diversity.

The biggest oaks come in all sizes, each according to its species' potential. In fact, no other genus of broadleaf tree covers the size range of oaks, from the 60-point Mohr oak (Quercus mohriana) in the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas to the 536-point valley oak (Quercus lobata), near Covelo, California. In the heavyweight division, four other champion oaks--live (Quercus virginiana), northern red (Quercus rubra), white (Quercus alba), and southern red (Quercus falcata) exceed 500 points, an achievement matched by only eight other broadleaf trees.

Oaks also hold a large proportion of titles in the light heavyweight division with 10 of the 32 broadleaf champions that score between 400 and 500 points. These mighty monarchs include the California black (Quercus kelloggii), coast live (Quercus agrifolia), canyon live (Quercus chrysolepis), and blue (Quercus douglasii) oaks of the West Coast; the black oak (Quercus velutina) of the East; the bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) of central North America; and the water (Quercus nigra), willow (Quercus phellos), cherrybark (Quercus falcata var. pagodifolia), and overcup (Quercus lyrata) oaks of the Southeast.


Four hundred points may not sound like much next to the stratospheric 1,200-point range of redwoods and sequoias, but keep in mind that the average diameter of these 400-point oaks is over 8 feet! (Keep in mind, also, that the diameter of a tree is the same as thickness, as opposed to circumference, which is the distance around the tree.)

Still quite impressive are the 20 middleweight champion oaks with 300-399 points, averaging over 6 feet thick. The 12 lightweight titleholders (200-299 points) would still stand out with respectable diameters from 3-5 feet. Featherweight oaks (100-199 points), averaging a bit over 2 feet thick, may seem unremarkable but they are the giants of their kind.

And last but least only among champions, the four flyweights--bear (Quercus ilicifolia), Havard (Quercus havardii), dwarf chinkapin (Quercus prinoides), and Mohr oaks--with 1-foot thick trunks and less than 100 points may look like they are just getting started until you realize that they are best known as thicket-forming shrubs.

The four biggest oaks also have the biggest girths. They are led by a live oak near Lewisburg, Louisiana, that is the epitome of stoutness with a diameter of more than 11 feet!

Exceeding diameters of 10 feet are the co-champion live oak in Waycross, Georgia; the biggest northern red oak in Monroe County, New York; the champion valley oak near Covelo, California; and the former white oak champion of Wye Mills, Maryland. Shoulder to shoulder, at least 20 people could stand with their backs against each of these leviathans.

In terms of crown spread--another measurement factored into a tree's point total--of the 49 champion trees with crown spreads exceeding 100 feet, 19 are oaks. The biggest crowns of all are the forests-by-themselves canopies of a southern red oak (156 feet) in Thomaston, Georgia; a swamp chestnut oak (Quercus michauxii) (148 feet) in Fayette County, Alabama; and the co-champion live oak (140 feet) in Waycross, Georgia. Together, these three trees could shade an entire football field.



Oaks achieve great reach by the virtue for which they are best known: their strength. The word 'robust' actually comes from the Latin robur, which is synonymous with "strength" and "oak."

Other trees put their faith in flexibility and bend with the wind. They may also have foliage that is shaped and structured so that high winds force leaves to curl up or lay along the branch and thereby reduce tree-toppling drag. But oaks stand rigid in defiance of the gales and stoically endure heavy armors of ice and mantles of snow with nary a drop of live twig.

As if size and strength were not enough inspiration, oaks also attain great ages, at least for a broadleaf tree. Direct ring counts have been made of oaks over 400 years old. No wonder one-third of our champion broadleaf trees that score more than 400 points are oaks.

Hundreds of wildlife species depend on oaks, hundreds of uses have been made of their wood, hundreds of historical events have been associated with their lives, hundreds of cures have been derived from their extracts, and hundreds of cultures have considered them sacred. Today, with our modern retreat indoors, and greater dependence on manufactured materials, oaks are not as prevalent in our lives as they once were.

But that has only increased their most important value. Simply by growing into big, beautiful forms, interacting with the natural world, and resolutely withstanding the ravages of time, these "fine trees" teach us to be finer humans.

Watch a little acorn grow into a mighty oak and learn from its process: Take what you need from Mother Earth, make the most of it, and then give it all back. Endure your winters without complaint, and celebrate the joy of every each and spring. Slow down, pay attention, and never stop growing.

Whit Bronaugh chronicled a year in the life of the national champion bur oak in our Winter 2003 issue.
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Author:Bronaugh, Whit
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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