The sycamore Champion of Alabama (Platanus occidentalis) is almost 5 feet in diameter, 115 feet tall, with a canopy 102 feet wide.
You may hear people speak of them reverently. You might catch word of a “big tree,” an important tree, a “Champion Tree.” But trees don’t compete for titles; they grow their own crowns and are made into trophies instead of receiving them. Trees do compete though. Rooting space, water, light, pollinators, producing many seeds, and so on are the prizes trees, by their nature, seek. It’s the winners of these competitions that we humans notice and some of these winners are named Champion Trees.
In 1940, American Forests, a Washington, D.C.-based, non-profit forest conservation group, began a program called the National Register of Big Trees. The biggest trees on that list are declared Champion Trees. Every year they post a list of the national champions by species. Almost every state in the union has its own Champion Tree program from which the National Register of Big Trees draws the national champions.
At only 22 inches in diameter and 38 feet tall, you’d think this wasn’t a Champion Tree. However, for a dogwood, this tree is magnificent and very long lived in a time when dogwood anthracnose is decimating dogwood populations.
To be considered a “big” tree or Champion, someone has to nominate it. The nominator takes measurements and sends them to the local program coordinator. The coordinator then comes out to certify the measurements and compares the tree to other Champions by species and region. There are several reasons for this. Success for the tree is making use of its resources and reproducing. A live oak that is 70 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter requires several decades of growth to reach this size. A water oak might achieve this size in just 40 to 60 years (if it survives to that age). Other nomination considerations are the natural range and environment for that species. The southern live oak is unlikely to be long-lived and large north of USDA Zone 7, but the water oak ranges much farther north, and is more able to withstand winter and dryer weather. Go even farther north though, and the water oak becomes a short-lived runt compared to other more northerly adapted trees such as willow oaks or red oaks.
At 5 feet in diameter and 52 feet tall, this is a colossal redcedar. Older redecedars have beautiful, crenellated trunks and their thin, tight bark allows the observer to view every ripple of the underlying wood.
Champion status is decided by measuring three basic parts of the tree: trunk circumference, canopy width and overall height. These measurements are scored using a point system. One point for every inch of trunk circumference, one point for every foot of height and one point for every one-quarter of the average crown spread. This process sounds difficult but is actually easy. The formula for scoring a tree is: trunk circumference (in inches) + height (in feet) + one-quarter of the crown spread (in feet) = total points. If a tree’s score qualifies for Champion status the state coordinator will come to the tree and certify the measurements. Once qualified for Champion status, a tree is awarded a plaque and bragging rights on the state Champion Tree register and is automatically considered for national status by American Forests.
Anyone can participate in the program through their local Champion Tree Coordinator. Each year the list of Champions grows and changes. The locations of these trees will often surprise you, as they tend to be hidden in plain sight. Very often, these trees have histories or stories attached to them making them even more special.
Since Champion Trees represent some of the more successful trees of their species and within their regions, they are also important as a source of improved tree stock. If a Champion Tree still displays good characteristics, i.e. strong structure, successfully coping with damage, disease resistance, beauty, etc., they become a valuable resource of genes for our future forests and landscapes. Some nurseries and states support Champion Tree seedling programs to share these particular trees with the public.
Learn more about the National Big Tree program at the American Forests website: www.americanforests.org.
A version of this article appeared in Alabama Gardener Volume 13 Number 7.
Photography courtesy of Brian Hendricks, William “Jack” Rowe, and Danny McWilliams.