A champion tree is any tree which is the largest tree of its species within a certain region. The American Forest organization, which is the oldest national non-profit conservation organization in the U.S. manages the National Big Tree Program.
It is here that they have the American Forests Champion Trees national registry. This list has been maintained since 1940 by American Forests, a non-profit conservation organization.
To be eligible, a species must be recognized as native or naturalized in the continental United States, including Alaska but not Hawaii, as documented in Elbert L. Little Jr.’s Checklist of United States Trees (Native and Naturalized), published in 1979 as Agricultural Handbook 541 by the United States Department of Agriculture.
There are currently 747 native and 79 naturalized trees eligible, for a total of 826 eligible species and varieties.
Once the species is identified as a noteworthy specimen, they are measured using the height, trunk circumference, and crown. Before you decide to climb to the top of a tree and drop a tape measure down, please look up the method used to measure the height of a tree. It’s safer and easier than it sounds and involves two yardsticks.
The 2015 American Forests Champion Trees national register has 781 national champions, including 37 newly crowned champions and co-champions. There are currently 200 species without a champion. These trees are someplace, waiting to be discovered as champions and to be registered with American Forests.
Often, these trees are on a farm, in a park or school yard, and no one has considered having them measured to see if they might be the largest one of their species.
Missouri currently has several National Champion Trees:
• National Champion Pumpkin Ash in Mississippi County’s Big Oak Tree State Park.
• National Champion White Basswood in St. Louis County at the Missouri Botanical garden.
• National Champion Ozark Chinquapin on private property in Barry County.
• National Champion Prairie Crabapple on private property in Callaway County.
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• Eastern Wahoo on private property in St. Louis County.
There are a surprising number of people across the country who pursue what many of us call “The Giants.” Linda Williams Palmer traveled all over Arkansas doing wonderful colored pencil drawings of champion trees.
New Hampshire is one of the most forested states in the U.S. with 84% of its landscape covered. Carolyn Enz Page, New Hampshire’s Big Tree Program coordinator, has helped discover and register 8 National Champions for her state program.
The most prolific champion tree hunters, Byron Carmeon, a retired school teacher, and Gary Williamson, a park ranger, have worked as a team to find 42 champion trees!
Fortunately, for the tree lovers, many states keep a list of state champion trees. It is very easy and convenient to look online and see if you might be traveling near one of these amazing trees. You can go to AmericanForests.org to see the complete list of national champs, or visit the Department of Forestry for any state and see if they have a list posted.
Two-thirds of champion trees are found on institutional settings like schools, cemeteries, and churches, where they have little competition for nutrients and growth. I keep a list of Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Missouri champion trees in my car for convenience, but you can also view it on your smartphone.
If you plan to travel soon, please google “champion tree” for the state you will be in. You will be directed to the forest service for that state or the Department of Conservation website for that state, and very likely there will be a list available.
I have seen champions in many states and the list keeps changing. Often, the champions are very old and succumb to high winds and lightning strikes and soon a new champion from another state takes their place.
It’s not unusual for 80-90 trees to be unseeded as champions and new trees be crowned. The department of forestry has been very accommodating and when I have contacted them, they have even pointed me to private property owners who have been happy to share their champion tree with me. Happy hunting!
(James Oaks can be reached at 417-483-3430 or Trusdad@gmail.com.)