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Meet the new royal family.

From monoliths to minutiae, the 840 champions on our updated National Register present a fascinating gallery of plant life at its best.

Sometime around 2000 BC, in a meadow on the gentle west slope of the Sierra Nevada, a western-juniper seed took root and started to grow. Today, after 4,000 years of stoic endurance, that same juniper is still growing and, apparently, thriving. Just a hair under 100 percent of everything we know about human history can be correlated to one or more of the annual rings in this Methuselah of champion trees. Considering its apparent good health and relative isolation, it will probably be recording history for centuries, if not millennia, to come. Other champions of extremely long-lived and well-surveyed species - like the Rocky Mountain juniper, bristlecone pine, and giant sequoia - are also probably secure in their royal status until a future time we can barely imagine. Most other champion trees will not be so lucky.

Some big trees are crowned even as they are beginning to fall apart in old age. Many others enjoy only a short reign before someone finds an even bigger specimen. A few even rise and fall before they can be recognized in the National Register of Big Trees, published every two years. Here is an update on the world of champion trees.

Out of the hundreds of nominations received since the 1994 edition of the Register, 198 contenders, representing 177 species, have made it onto the 1996 list. All but six are new champions, the exceptions being a former champion honeylocust in Virginia that was reinstated when the Michigan champion lost points due to crown damage, a former champion cat-claw acacia in New Mexico that was reinstated when the Arizona champion was reported to have been incorrectly measured, a former champion common hoptree in Michigan reinstated when the Connecticut champion was reported to have been incorrectly measured, and two former co-champion American smoketrees in Indiana and Ohio, and a former champion Pacific red elder in Oregon, all reinstated due to incorrect measurement of the 1994 champions. The total number of champions has grown by 43 to 840 while the number of species represented has increased from 681 to 704.

The new champs range from the tiny 22-point roughleaf velvetseed on Totten Key, Florida, to the towering 681-point sugar pine near Darrington, California. The velvetseed, only eight feet tall and four inches in diameter, also holds the distinction of being the smallest of our big trees. It is joined in the featherweight division by 23 other rookie monarchs that score less than 50 points. Of these mighty midgets, only the cinnamon clethra in Great Smoky Mountains National Park reaches higher than 30 feet, and only the jumping cholla of Mesa, Arizona, and the Florida elder of Marion County, Florida, have diameters exceeding eight inches.

In the heavyweight division of new champions, the sugar pine, with a 37-foot circumference and a 232-foot height, now ranks No. 8 among all champion trees (for details on this massive tree, see "Rediscovering the Super Sugar," page 21, American Forests, July/August 1994). The new Monterey-cypress champion in Pescadero County, California, isn't far behind at No. 10 with 656 points. Eleven other additions to the list have a total score of more than 400 points, including such familiar trees as the American beech, red maple, and pecan.

For 56 years AMERICAN FORESTS has inspired people across the country to be on the lookout for potential champion trees, so you might think new one would be almost impossible to find. But except in the case of extremely rare trees, there's never any certainty that the current champion of a given species is the absolute biggest - it's just the biggest nominated so far. And sometimes trees on the list fall far short of their species' true potential. The new Ozark chinkapin in Claiborne County, Mississippi, beat out the champion from Clark County, Arkansas, by 84 points with a girth over three times bigger! The 152-point champion common chokecherry in Ada, Michigan, recently fell to a 259-point tree in Owings Mills, Maryland.

The biggest margin of victory was a 144-point plastering by the new Monterey cypress. Though only six feet taller and one foot wider in the crown spread than the old champ in Brookings, Oregon, its circumference stretches the measuring tape an additional 11 1/2 feet.

The biggest jump in relative size was achieved by the new champion common juniper. The old 18-foot-tall Michigan champ is still huge for a species that is more used to being stepped over than looked up to, but the new champion, also in Michigan, is more than twice as big in all measurements.

The distribution of champion trees among the 50 states depends primarily on climate (trees grow fast in the wet Pacific Northwest, for example), endemism (many species are found only in California, Texas, or Florida), and sometimes the efforts of big-tree hunters who tend to concentrate their searches in areas close to home. The last two factors are why Florida has more than one-third (64) of the new champions. Botany professor Daniel B. Ward of the University of Florida took on the daunting task of relocating and remeasuring all 117 of Florida's 1994 national champions. In the process a number of champs were dethroned but many more were found, so Florida's total now stands at 146 - the most for any state.

The best evidence that a bit of effort can result in finding new champion trees, no matter where you live, is found in the small state of Maryland. Back in 1940 Maryland's big-tree program was already 15 years old when AMERICAN FORESTS created the National Register. Not surprisingly, a lot of Maryland trees were national champions that year. From a high of 25 (then one-third of the total), Maryland's royal family gradually declined as people around the country joined the search for big trees. But this year, thanks to the hard work of the Maryland Forest, Park, and Wildlife Service, Maryland has made a comeback, with a net increase in champions second only to Florida. From a low of five champions in 1994, the Old Line State is now up to 18, including the new American beech, rock elm, and white basswood.

Besides Florida and Maryland, 24 other states have new champions, including Texas (18), Arizona (14), and Tennessee (11). Texas and Arizona have an advantage with their monopoly on a number of desert species. About one-fourth of the newly crowned in both states took their title by default since there was no previous champion. Arizona Big Tree State Coordinator Robert Zahner and Joe Ideker from Texas both accounted for six of the new champions in their respective states. Tennessee's large number of rookie big trees are credited mostly to Will Blozan, a forestry technician at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where in the last two years he found 12 new champions (some on the North Carolina side), including the far-from-obscure yellow buckeye, eastern hemlock, and red maple. The location is not surprising since the Smokies contain some of the largest tracts of old-growth forest in the East.

Two other states should be noted for their new champions because they formerly had none. Montana debuted with a co-champion western latch, while Alaska now lays claim to both co-champion Alaska birches as well as the biggest Kenai birch. Four states still have no champions, but they either have low tree diversity (Wyoming and North Dakota) or are small (Massachusetts and Delaware).

What you don't see in the current list of big trees are all the 1994 champions that have lost their claim to fame. Most of the has-beens were simply ousted by a bigger challenger; the rest were knocked out for reasons ranging from measuring technicalities to unnatural death. The 1994 champion swamp cottonwood (Populus heterophylla) was unmasked as an eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides), although at 502 points it is still a very big tree. The champion tamarind (Tamarindus indica) was found to be moonlighting as the champion Bahama lysiloma (Lysiloma latisiliquum), whose other common name, wild tamarind, facilitated the duplicity.

Eleven former champions were dethroned after being remeasured under the new rule governing forked trees: When a tree forks below the 4 1/2-foot mark, the circumference is now taken from the largest fork only, not from the narrowest point below the fork. Actually, this "new" measuring method is a return to the old system used when the Big Tree program first began. And it makes sense. Many trees that fork close to the ground are really two or more trees that sprouted near each other and grew together. The new system also forces predominantly shrubby species, like the common juniper and catclaw acacia, to have champions that look like a tree.

Sadly, some former monarchs lost their crowns when they lost their lives. Some, like the Joshua tree in San Bernardino National Forest, California, just ran out of chlorophyll and died of natural causes. Others had a more dramatic ending. Seven more casualties from Hurricane Andrew were discovered, adding to the 10 known in 1994, including the seven-year-apple and tallowwood, which have had no replacements. A 459-point southern catalpa in Henderson County, Illinois, was taken out by a tornado last May. Finally, and most regrettably, the champion pinckneya in Orange Springs, Florida, and the Texas paloverde in Cameron County, Texas, were unceremoniously bulldozed to make way for more infernal combustion engines.

All the current champion trees will eventually lose their crowns in some way, even the ancient western juniper. Even so, the inspiration of their carefully measured dimensions will live on in subtle but important ways in all the lives they touch. And, like good friends, most champion trees are still out there waiting to be discovered.

RELATED ARTICLE: How To Nominate a Potential Champ

For each nomination, we need the following information:

1. Correct name of the species or variety (only U.S. native and naturalized species are eligible). If you need help with identification, call your local Forest Service or Extension office.

2. Circumference of the tree in inches at 4 1/2 feet above the ground. If there is a fork at this point, measure the smallest circumference below the fork. If it branches below 4 1/2 feet, measure the largest fork above the branching.

3. Vertical height of the tree to the nearest foot. The most reliable tools for this purpose are an Abner hand level, a hypsometer, or a transit. Lacking such a tool, you can use a straight stick. Hold the stick at its base vertically at arm's length, making sure its length above your hand equals the distance from your hand to your eye. Walk backward away from the tree, staying approximately level with the tree's base. Stop when the stick above your hand appears to be the same length as the tree. You should be sighting over your hand to the base of the tree and, without moving anything but your eye, sighting over the top of the stick to the top of the tree. Measure how far you are from the tree, and that measurement, in feet, is the tree's height.

4. Average diameter of the crown to the nearest foot. Measure the widest spread of the crown and the narrowest, then add them together and divide by two.

5. Location.

6. Date measured, and by whom.

7. Name and address of owner.

8. Clear photograph with date taken.

9. Description of the tree's physical condition.

10. Name and address of nominator.

Send to: National Register of Big Trees, AMERICAN FORESTS, P.O. Box 2000, Washington, DC 20013.


It has been over 100 million years since the giant coniferous forests that evolved in the Carboniferous Period began giving ground to the upstart flower-bearing species that now dominate the world's diversity of trees. Remnants of those cathedral forests persist today, however, and they still outgrow their broadleafed counterparts. Of the 10 biggest champion trees in America, nine are conifers. The tone flowering tree in this elite group - a sycamore in Jeromesville, Ohio - has several forks near the ground and, with the new measuring rule, will probably lose a lot of points by the publication of the next Register. The most likely tree to then move into the Top 10 lineup will be the incense cedar, making it a sweep for the conifers.

You might not expect the Top 10 list to change much over the years since, after all, the biggest trees of the biggest species should stand out. But there's a lot of forest out there, and slight size differences are hard to discern among giants, even if they stand side by side. Since the last Register in 1994 a new sugar-pine champion, 46 points bigger than its predecessor, has nudged ahead of the Port Orford cedar. The incense cedar was knocked out of the Top 10 by a Monterey cypress that beat out the former champ by a whopping 144 points.

The 10 top champions are truly in a class by themselves. In the 1996 National Register of Big Trees, champions range from the diminutive roughleaf velvetseed, with 22 points, to the biggest tree in the world, the 1,300-point giant sequoia. Over 98 percent of champion trees fall below the halfway mark of 650 points. The only champions in the top half of the point spectrum are the Top 10.

The top four champions are so far above the rest that they probably deserve a different botanical term like "megawood" or "gigatree." If you were to graph all the champion trees from least to most points, you would see a smooth, continuous increase up to No. 11, the incense cedar. No more than 19 points separates any of these trees from its neighbors. Even up to No. 5, the coast Douglas-fir, the biggest difference is 56 points between the sugar pine (No. 8) and the sycamore (No. 7). But to reach the final four you have to jump a gap of 141 points to get to the Sitka spruce (No. 4) and the western red-cedar (No. 3). A huge 252-point gap separates them from the runner-up coast redwood. Finally, you have to add another 117 points to arrive at No. 1, the champion-of-champions giant sequoia. Who says the Carboniferous Period is over?
Species Girth Height Crown Points State
(*denotes Co-champion)

Giant sequoia 998 275 107 1300 CA
Coast redwood 845 313 101 1183 CA
Western redcedar(*) 761 159 45 931 WA
Western redcedar(*) 732 178 54 924 WA
Sitka spruce(*) 707 191 96 922 WA
Sitka spruce(*) 673 206 93 902 OR
Coast Douglas-fir 438 329 60 782 OR
Common baldcypress 644 83 85 748 KA
Sycamore 582 129 105 737 OH
Sugar pine 442 232 29 681 CA
Port-Orford cedar 451 219 39 680 OR
Monterey cypress 522 106 111 656 CA

COPYRIGHT 1996 American Forests
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:1996-97 National Register of Big Trees; includes related article
Author:Bronaugh, Whit
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1996
Previous Article:Scientists take on the ecosystem.
Next Article:Champions on the brink.

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