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In a state of superlatives; Big Tree Paradise has an address: go west; stop at the ocean.

Imagine, for a moment, a paradise for big tree lovers. It would need a diverse and unique silva with many trees found nowhere else in the world. These trees would live in myriad habitats from soggy coasts to the driest deserts, deep valleys to the shoulders of alpine peaks, backyards to the back of beyond. Some would stand alone like arboreal explorers in a wilderness of adverse conditions, others would crowd together in forests dense enough to affect gravity.

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Scattered throughout like precious gems would be trees of unmatched stature. And the crown jewels would include the biggest, tallest, and oldest trees on Mother Earth.

But you don't have to imagine this wonderland. You can buy a ticket to Big Tree Paradise and go there. Destination: California.

Compared to the rest of the country, California's national champs are like emergent trees in a tropical forest, standing crown and limb above all others. Here you'll find a tree that is both the world's biggest and the nation's oldest champ (giant sequoia), as well as the world's biggest pine tree (a sugar pine) and the country's tallest champion (coast redwood), biggest naturalized tree (bluegum eucalyptus), biggest native hardwood (California-laurel), and biggest oak (valley oak).

You'll also see the most champion conifers in any state (38), 15 of the 34 national champs scoring over 500 points, and two (giant sequoia and western juniper) of only three champions to hold their crowns since the National Register of Big Trees began in 1940. And if that's not enough: At 98, California has more national champion trees than any other state except Florida, which has 167.

But in big tree competitions, size is all that matters. So by that criterion, how do the Golden State and the Sunshine State compare? Even with 69 fewer champion trees, California's total point score is half again as much as Florida's. The average champion tree in California is 301 points, roughly equivalent to its national champion Coulter pine, which stands 141 feet tall and 4 feet thick in San Diego County.

In Florida, the average champ has 119 points and could be represented by the state's national champion scrub hickory, a mere 47 feet tall and 20 inches thick. So, who do you think is Number One?

Geography explains much of California's advantage. Its large size, great latitudinal range, southern border region, and variety of habitats all contribute to the diversity of about 150 species of trees. The evolutionary isolation imposed by the dispersal barriers of ocean, desert, and mountains has resulted in a high degree of exclusivity. One of the biodiversity hot spots of the world, California has nearly 5,000 species of plants, or one-quarter of all plants north of Mexico. A third of them, including about 30 species of trees, are found nowhere else. Another 50 trees are shared only with Mexico, Oregon, or Arizona.

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California has five of the country's 10 biggest champion trees: the General Sherman giant sequoia (biggest tree in the world; biggest champ by circumference, volume, and point total), coast redwood (tallest tree in the world and second biggest national champ), California-laurel (seventh biggest national champ, biggest native hardwood champ), sugar pine (biggest pine in the world, eight biggest national champ), and Monterey cypress (tenth biggest national champ). But California's reputation does not rest on this treasure of trees alone. Join with me now for a brief tour of Big Tree Paradise and you'll see how rich the trove is.

First stop, the Northern Coast, where nearly one-third (32) of California's champions grow, including the 1,291-point coast redwood, the 684-point California-laurel, and the 668-point Monterey cypress. This region has five of the 13 national champs that score over 600 points. The 759-point bluegum eucalyptus, near Petrolia, is the nation's biggest naturalized tree and its biggest hardwood champ. Just two years ago Clint Eastwood learned with sudden impact that this tree put his then-champion bluegum eucalyptus in the line of fire like a bird in a gauntlet. That made the day for Loren Salladay and Robert Bush, who nominated this fence-eating Australian monster.

The other local member of the 600-Point Club is the 626-point incense-cedar known as the Devil's Canyon Colossus. Unlike most champion trees, this old-growth goliath enjoys the solitude of wilderness. Growing in a well-watered and open site has given it a full crown and a sequoia-sized trunk with nearly twice the volume of its closest competitor. But that huge gap doesn't make the Devil's Canyon Colossus a freak of nature. More likely it's a reflection of this country's history of logging all but a tiny fraction of our old-growth trees. To know the true potential of incense-cedars we may have to wait a few centuries.

Another old-growth champion is a 511-point grand fir in Redwood National Park. To truly appreciate the size of the Bald Hills champion you need to be familiar with the species and be a good judge of height, because it is literally overshadowed by its redwood neighbors. But at a neck-craning 257 feet it actually looks down on all champions except the redwood, sequoia, coast Douglas-fir, and noble fir.

Now let's leave the cathedral-like northern forests and head for the Southern Coast region, home of 22 species. What we lose in rainfall we gain in sunshine, and, while the proportions might be different, the trees are no less impressive. Take, for instance, the champion coast live oak, which grows on a ranch in San Diego County. True to live oak squatty form it tops out at only 58 feet and derives most of its 415 points from a massive bole 28 feet around. But big tree hunters should keep their eyes peeled because past champions have stretched the tape with 130-foot spreads and 38-foot girths.

The biggest champion in the south is a California sycamore growing near the Mission in San Juan Capistrano. This is only the third national champion California sycamore since the Register began. The first was a charter member of the Big Tree program and notable for its amazing 158-foot crown spread, which could have sheltered a party of 2,000. It grew near Santa Barbara, on a ranch once owned by actor Jimmy Stewart, but was washed away in the superflood of 1969. I discovered its loss in 1991 when I tried to track it down. I nominated in its place the somewhat smaller Witness Tree, a sycamore in Goleta that served as a survey point for a ranch back when the Mexican flag flew over California. But the Capistrano sycamore has measurements more befitting a king and--with 472 points as of 2001--may have already exceeded the original sycamore's score of 480.

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Just up the coast, in the town of Carpenteria, grows a Torrey pine with a crown spread that's 14 feet wider than that of any other national champion conifer. Its 130-foot spread is currently bested only by the biggest American beech and four champion oaks. This tree sprouted in the wild on Santa Rosa Island, was transplanted to the mainland as a seedling in 1894, and is now probably bigger than any Torrey pine since the end of the Ice Age, possibly since the species evolved. Wild specimens, which number less than 10,000, are stunted by a mere 10-12 inches of annual rainfall; the champion guzzles the artificial supply of civilization.

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But big trees aren't found only along the coast. In California's interior valleys you can see 16 champions, from the shrubby 38-point elephant-tree to the 536-point valley oak--the biggest oak in the country. With their papery bark, aromatic leaves, red sap, and rapidly tapering trunks, elephant-trees are as absurd, beautiful, and intriguing as their namesakes. I found California's champion elephant-tree growing between rocks on a parched slope in the Anza-Borrego Desert and nominated it because it was big enough to share the crown with an Arizona tree. Elephant-trees never get huge, but this 12-foot-tall, 6 1/2-inch diameter specimen, growing at the species' northern limit, would be less than average anywhere in its Mexican range.

The biggest valley oak, however, has no bigger peers. One of four oaks endemic to California, this Round Valley champ was lucky enough to become established long before European agriculture came to the state and eliminated all but 1 percent of the tree's natural habitat. This magnificent tree, with its 9-foot-thick bole, 163-foot height, and 99-foot spread, is a monument to a glorious past. Although their chances are slim, the champ's annual rain of acorns inspires hope for the future.

The northern and southern California walnuts are also endemic and declining, at least in their natural groves. Their champions are nearly identical in proportions. The 432-point northern champion is a beautifully symmetrical landmark of a tree growing in a Napa vineyard. It's southern cousin, which graces a Chico street, is only slightly smaller at 381 points. Non-Californians may not be familiar with these trees, but nearly everyone not allergic to nuts has a connection with one of them. The trees that provide the walnuts you eat may be called English but their roots are pure northern California, the result of grafting to take advantage of the native species' resistance to drought and insects.

There is only one palm native to the West, and that's the California Washingtonia or fanpalm. Three co-champs are known to exist on the State Capital Grounds in Sacramento. But finding them without specific directions would be a true test of your measuring skills because they are lost among dozens of other fanpalms lining the streets.

Our last stop is the interior mountain ranges, home to the 681-point sugar pine and the almighty 1,321-point giant sequoia. The other 22 national champions in the Cascades, Whites, and Sierra Nevada include the western juniper, western white pine, California red fir, ponderosa pine, Jeffrey pine, and California white fir, all members of the 500-Point Club.

The primary purpose of the Big Tree program is self-evident, and our initial reaction to a champion tree is invariably awe at its size. But this is not just a Giant Vegetable Contest. It's that gulf of time, implied by those awesome dimensions, that inspires our deepest feelings and demands our utmost respect. By all means, visit the General Sherman giant sequoia and let your jaw drop as you gaze upon the biggest Earthling of all. But do stay long enough to let the meaning of 2,500 years sink in.

The biggest western juniper is another ancient sentinel of the Sierras. Past estimates of its age were made with more exuberance than science, but by all accounts the Bennett Juniper is no spring chicken. The latest scientific estimate is about 2,200 years. Seekers of wisdom are often portrayed climbing a mountain to learn from some wizened sage. Imagine the wisdom contained in this enduring survivor.

We end, appropriately enough, at the beginning--the beginning of tree time in California, anyway,--with the oldest trees in the world. Intermountain bristlecone pines are the only living things on Earth that can tell you, first-hand, what the weather was like in the third millennium B.C. The oldest ever recorded was a tree in Nevada, infamously cut down in 1964 to count its 4,862 rings, the first of which were laid down two centuries before the first stone of the Pyramids. The long-time former champion, called the Patriarch, grows at 11,000 feet in the White Mountains. Because of better growing conditions its 36-foot girth is not an indicator of comparable longevity. But, at an estimated 1,500 years, the equivalent of 20 human lifetimes, it is still a tree that will put you in your place.

When the early Spanish explorers named California after a fictional island paradise of a 1510 novel, they were probably not thinking about big trees. But for Big Tree Paradise, there's no doubt about it: California is the place you want to be.

Story and photos by Whit Bronaugh

Photojournalist Whit Bronaugh writes from his home in Eugene, Oregon.
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Author:Bronaugh, Whit
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Words:2009
Previous Article:Natural capital: in a single tree resides the context for pondering the true wealth of nature.
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