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The tiniest titan.


In the ranks of tree champions, most of us expect to find only giants. Trees like the spreading Wye Oak and the massive General Sherman sequoia fit our images of champion trees perfectly. But not every tree can grow up to be a giant, and it's the best efforts of every species that the American Forestry Association's Big Tree Program is out to recognize.

That's why there's a champion tree in Virginia that's only 15 feet tall. The Virginia Stewartia is the smallest champion tree in the country. Although it's dwarfed by the oaks around it on Mr. and Mrs. Robert Ripley's property in the town of Chesapeake, its height, 10-inch girth, and 24-foot crown spread make it the largest of its kind in the country.

"You have to know this species to appreciate how big this specimen is," says horticulture teacher Byron Carmean, who with his friend, park naturalist Gary Williamson, discovered the tree in 1987. "This is the General Sherman of Stewartias to us."

Carmean and Williamson have 125 state champion and 12 national champion trees to their credit, and they make no apologies for this tiny one.

"The small species are the hardest ones to find," says Carmean. "Anyone can find big trees. To find the champ of a real small species you've got to go out where it grows and focus on just that species."

According to Williamson, he and Carmean have found many of their champions by going into areas where other people won't go.

"We plow into swamps and snake-infested areas," says Williamson, who even as he speaks can point to the canebrake rattlesnake in an aquarium in the back seat of his car. "I find Stewartia in good canebrake country," he says.

Williamson gives Carmean much of the credit for spotting champions: "He has a mind like a computer - he can size up trees against those on the Big Tree list and know right away how they compare. `Don't bother measuring that one,' he'll say. `It's too small.' And I've never met anyone who has Byron's ability to identify trees at 55 mph from a moving car. He knows their shapes, bark, symmetry, and texture, from years of association with them."

Carmean and Williamson are particularly pleased that their Stewartia champion is receiving attention - it is a threatened species in Virginia, and they hope the publicity will help protect it.

There are seven species of Stewartia in the country, but only two - Stewartia malacodendron and Stewartia ovata, are native. Stewartia malacodendron, the species Carmean and Williamson have found, grows in coastal plains woods from southern Virginia to Louisiana. It's a beautiful shrub or small tree with camellia-like white blooms in early summer and royal purple foliage in the fall.

What's the dividing line between a shrub and a tree? Big Trees Director Gangloff uses the following definition of a tree, from Elbert L. Little's Checklist of U.S. Trees, Native and Naturalized: "a woody plant having one erect perennial stem or trunk at least three inches in diameter at breast height, a more or less definitely defined crown of foliage, and a height of at least 13 feet."

It's a definition to keep in mind as you hunt for new champion trees.

PHOTO : Carmean, left, Williamson, and the Titan.
COPYRIGHT 1990 American Forests
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Title Annotation:National Register of Big Trees; Virginia Stewartia
Author:Hugo, Nancy Ross
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Previous Article:Challenging the biggest champ.
Next Article:Elm hunt.

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