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Sovereign species: From dethroned monarchs to brash upstarts, the 2002 National Register of Big Trees has more royal intrigue than a British history text.

Imagine yourself on a flat, featureless plain. The only objects in sight are two trees, 180 degrees apart. One is slightly larger, but they appear otherwise identical. Which tree do you go to first?

Most people, of course, would choose the bigger one because it could offer a wealth of more's": more shade, more fruit or nuts, more dead wood for firewood, more shelter, more solace, more inspiration, or simply a higher vantage point. But if you read American Forests or belong to AMERICAN FORESTS, chances are you'd head for the bigger one so you could measure it. And if you're like the Big Tree hunters who contribute so much to AMERICAN FORESTS' National Register of Big Trees, you'd measure both to be sure which was the biggest.

Every two years at AMERICAN FORESTS we perform a similar survey to come up with a list of the biggest trees in the country. Since the new millennium we've instated 118 new national champion trees and watched 138 existing champs lose their crowns, literally and/or figuratively. For 2002 that leaves us with 886 champions and co-champions representing 730 species.

Doing the numbers by state, Florida remains way ahead of all others with 169 champions, followed by California (97), Texas (69), Arizona (70), and Virginia (56). The surprise of 2002 was Georgia, which had the most new champions (15), followed by California (14), Arizona (12), Tennessee (11), and Florida (10). After factoring in dethroned champs, Georgia still did the best with a net gain of eight, while Ohio's list increased by six and Oregon's by four.

This year Massachusetts joined the unfortunate club of states without champs (other members: Delaware, Kansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming) when a 510-point northern red oak in Monroe County, New York, bested Massachusetts' only national champion by 94 points.

But all those states can draw hope from former club member Nebraska, which returned to the Register with the discovery of what has turned out to be the country's biggest-known dwarf chinkapin oak, in Richardson County, and a co-champion eastern cottonwood in Seward. The cottonwood's 37-foot girth is exceeded by that of only two native hardwood champs (California-laurel and Fremont cottonwood).

The 16 biggest additions to the Register are all hardwoods: a sycamore, a cottonwood, an elm, 12 oaks, and an introduced eucalyptus. Twelve of those 16 are found in the East, as is the biggest new conifer, a 167-foot-tall loblolly pine in Congaree Swamp National Monument, South Carolina. This towering loblolly pine is now the tallest champion tree east of Idaho.

For pure gee-whizedness, the biggest new champ is a massive 759-point bluegum eucalyptus from Petrolia, California (see Clippings, Summer 2001), which resoundingly dethroned the 629-point previous champ, owned by Clint Eastwood.

The new champ's circumference alone gives it more points (586) than all but the biggest 14 national champion trees. Add in a 141-foot height and a 126-foot crown spread, and the Petrolia bluegum is dwarfed only by the champion giant sequoia, coast redwood, western redcedar, Sitka spruce, and coast Douglas-fir. That makes the tree, nominated by Loren Salladay and Robert Bush, the biggest hardwood on the Big Tree list. As for the overthrow of Mr. Eastwood's tree, we can only hope that the rookie tree that committed this true crime for absolute power does not go unforgiven.

After the 553-point eastern cottonwood that helped put Nebraska on the Big Tree map. the third largest new champion is a sycamore that hails from Montgomery County, Kentucky. As with most wild sycamores, it grows on a creek bank and has become hollow with age. In fact, it's a shell of its former self.

The trunk has an impressive diameter of nearly 12 feet, but the "walls" are less than a foot thick. You could walk through one of two natural "doorways" with a 10-foot pole held horizontally, spin 360 degrees, and exit the other "door." Livestock have been corralled inside here. This new champion beat its predecessor by 87 points and moved the sycamore from the 27th to the 8th largest broadleaf champion.

Other notable new champions include a 523-point co-champion live oak in Waycross, Georgia, with a crown spread of nearly 50 yards; a 420-point co-champion American elm in Shelby County, Tennessee (a fortunate find given that its co-champ has been diagnosed as dying from Dutch elm disease); and eight species that previously had no champion: holacantha (Holacantha emoryi), redherry juniper (Juniperus erythrocarpa), Nebraska's dwarf chinkapin oak Quercus prinoides), Mohr oak (Quercus mohriana), orange (Citrus sinensis), jumping-bean sapium (Sapium biloculare). feltleaf willow (Salix alaxensis), and aloe yucca (Yucca aloifolia).

Meanwhile, one of the oldest national champion trees, both in actual years (2,500) and official Big Tree years (62 since the first year of the program), keeps on growing. The General Sherman giant sequoia was last measured in 1975, when it accumulated an unmatched 1,300 points. When it was remeasured in 2000, it was actually 14 feet shorter but had gained 26 inches in circumference to become, at 1,024 inches, the only champion ever to break the 1,000-inch mark. Its total point score increased to 1,312.

Not much growth in 25 years, you say? Think of what an extra few inches on your girth would mean on the bathroom scale. My calculation of just the growth in the trunk up to the 180-foot level, out of a 261-foot height, tells me that General Sherman has put on at least 64,000 pounds since 1975. That's well over a ton of new growth every year.

Only three other trees have been lucky enough to be on the Big Tree list since it began in 1940: the champions for western juniper, white oak, and Rocky Mountain juniper. Most trees get to wear the crown for only a few years until even bigger contenders are found, but a few are able to fend off challengers for much longer.

Possibly the longest-reigning tree to be ousted is a curlleaf cercocarpus in Great Basin National Park, Nevada. This 100-point tree, first nominated in 1945, ruled for 56 years until lost year, when a 107-point tree in the nearby Schell Creek Range squeezed it off the throne. But with such a small difference, the old king may yet return.

About two-thirds of the 138 recently deposed monarchs simply played and then lost the point game fair and square. But there were others whose records were not so clean. The Arizona walnut, bitter cherry, and a co-champion anacua in San Antonio were unseated because they were mismeasured, falling victim to the 4 1/2-foot rule. (When a tree forks at that level, the largest stem must be measured above the fork, not below.) The mountain hemlock was deemed to be several trees growing together, and the measurement of the champion western hemlock was incorrectly inflated by a swollen buttress.

The "champions" of the pondcypress, cockspur hawthorn, and Texas hercules-club were found unfit to rule based on their true identities as a regular variety common baldcypress, a green hawthorn, and a non-Texas hercules-club, respectively.

But the most ignominious expulsion from the royal family was the case of two smooth sumacs from Walla Walla, Washington. They had been co-champions since 1993 but in 1999 were misreported as smooth dogwoods and subsequently held the crown for both species. This "double life" was exposed last year, leaving the two-timers with just one title. Later, arboreal justice was served when a 35 percent bigger smooth sumac was found in Drybranch Park, Georgia, stripping them of their royal status altogether.

Champion trees that are truly among the very biggest, and not just the biggest known, may not have to face many challengers, but with advanced age comes greater susceptibility to the deadly forces of lightning, disease, hurricanes, tornadoes, and shopping malls. About 40 former champions were recently discovered to have gone to that Great Forest in the sky. The throne of all but eight of these fallen giants has already been filled, but there are two downed champs that, in some ways, can never be replaced.

In Danville, Kentucky, a blue ash that had been the national champion since 1970 fell victim to an overly manicured garden aesthetic. The property on which it stood was being converted to a county park and the cleanup crew, unaware of its importance, saw only untidiness in the hollow and broken monarch. They unceremoniously cut it down.

Champion or not, any big blue ash in the Bluegrass Region of central Kentucky is a precious part of that area's natural heritage. Along with big bur oaks, these trees are all that remain of the original fire- and bison-maintained savanna that served as the hunting grounds for Native Americans north of the Ohio, and as a magnet to Daniel Boone and the pioneers from the colonies.

As one of the few living connections to an ecosystem now plowed under and paved over, the loss of this champion is especially poignant. Hopefully, the next national champion blue ash, possibly the nearby 292-point Kentucky state champ, will be shown the respect it deserves.

When you consider how many billions of trees there are all across the country, a champion tree is quite a rare thing. It is even more precious for a champion tree to stand out as a landmark all by itself. The former champion pacific madrone was one such tree. Nominated in 1955, and king of its kind ever since, this Humboldt County, California, tree stood majestic and alone atop a grassy knoll, a paragon of arboreal ideals. If still alive, its 11-foot diameter and 528 points would make it the tenth-largest hardwood champion. It was called the Council Madrone for the many tribal meetings that were held under its 121-foot crown. A small park was established for its protection, but in February 2000 its huge crown of evergreen foliage gave purchase to a powerful wind, and a truly great tree was lost.

Like the new pacific madrone champ, which is little more than half the size of the Council Madrone, many of the champions in the 2002 National Register of Big Trees have yet to reach their full potential. And 96 species still have no champion at all.

Many big trees are waiting to be found. There might be one in your backyard or just over the next hill. Now, imagine you are back on that barren plain with the two trees. You measure them and find they are both a bit shy of royal stature. But your view has now been expanded and you can see other trees on your new horizon. You know what to do.

Whit Bronaugh is an Oregon-based photojournalist. He has written for the National Register of Big Trees since 1992.
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Author:Bronaugh, Whit
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
Words:1787
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