“Tree Hunters Go Out on a Limb to Topple Records,” by Kat Long. The Wall Street Journal, 3/18/2016.
Back in 1940, a lumber-company employee, Joseph E. Stearns, urged forest lovers—professionals, retirees, housewives, anyone—to find the largest American tree of each species. In the following year, American Forests, a national environmental group, began publishing a list of these trees that they called “Champion Trees.” Discovery of a Champion Tree bestowed bragging rights on both the finder and the landowner, and a new hobby developed for many that is thriving today (as is tree-bragging). One fan said looking for big trees has become his way of life.
The tree must be a native or naturalized American tree, and the only criteria is size—not beauty, not health, not history. Size is determined by a point system that is the sum of three measurements: trunk circumference (inches) + height (feet) + 1/4 average crown spread (feet). Even these objective measurements have some ambiguity, so the American Forests organization also publishes a Measurement Guidelines Handbook and sends out inspectors to verify the nominations. Being named a Champion Tree is very competitive and sometimes co-champions are named to keep the peace. Finding a Champion Tree has no financial reward, bue special interest groups occasionally offer modest cash prizes to successful finds that the winners often spend on new measuring equipment.
Trees, like people, age and die while younger ones grow, so the list of Champions is constantly changing. American Forest takes new nominees from March through Arbor Day, April 29 this year. On their website, you can search a list of the current champions.
Longwood claims 63 Champions on its website. However, they are Pennsylvania Champions, and that list is maintained by the Big Tree Committee of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association. It is possible (but not likely) that an even bigger tree of the same species could be less than 5 miles away in Delaware. The Pennsylvania registry is open to all species, native or introduced.
But one of Longwood’s Pennsylvania Champions is also a National Champion. It is a cucumber magnolia that was discovered in 1788 in South Carolina by the French explorer Andre Michaux. It is thought the Peirce brothers (twins Joshua II and Samuel) bought the Longwood tree from Michaux himself for what would become Peirce’s park. This would have been about 1800, so the tree has had a long time to grow into a Champion. It is located in the grass just off the SW corner of the original Peirce House and is prominently visible through the front window. It was obviously placed where it is on purpose long ago. Many Champion Trees are found on school or church properties where they have grown undisturbed. The Longwood website lists their cucumber magnolia as 84.4 feet tall in one place, but another says it is “over 100 feet tall.” Whatever, . . . it is one big magnolia and usually blooms in April. “Cucumber” refers to the green, unripe fruit that resembles a small, green cucumber (“pickle” magnolia I would call it) but turns dark red as it matures. The yellow flowers are small for a magnolia.
(Out of thousands of photos I have taken at Longwood, I could find none of the Champion magnolia, a testament to its insignificant appearance. I am more impressed now with its history. Part of the problem is a larger ginkgo is just on its left, although it is not a Champion. The larger ginkgo has a lightening rod that protects the magnolia. This photo is very recent. Longwood no longer makes a big deal of the champions it has, preferring to emphasize other aspects than simple size.)
If only there was a Human Champion also based on size alone, I have a nomination from our senior center locker room. He has the right height and girth, but not much of a crown spread. I kid you not.