Champion trees come in all sizes

April 11

When you think about champions, you probably think about people who are winners in sports or contests. But did you know that hundreds of trees are identified as champions, too?

While we often take trees for granted, they shade us, filter our air and water, provide habitats for wildlife and beautify our surroundings. They deserve recognition.

What makes a champion tree?

Champions are big, right? Some redwoods and giant sequoias are taller than a 26-story building!

But there’s also a national champion tree — a dwarf hackberry — that’s small enough to wrap your arms around and only as tall as a three-story house. (It’s at South Payne and Gibbon streets in Old Town Alexandria, if you want to check it out.)

Champion trees are very special, but they aren’t necessarily big. Does that make sense?


When considering a champion tree, points are given by adding three measurements: the height, the trunk circumference and the average crown spread divided by 4. (Patterson Clark/The Washington Post)

Think of it this way: People come in different shapes, sizes and ages, but you can’t tell who are the champions just by looking at them. It’s the same way with trees.

The “champion” honor means it’s the largest tree of its species, or kind. So chestnut trees compete only against chestnut trees, flowering dogwoods against flowering dogwoods, and so on. There are hundreds of tree species just in North America.

Maryland started recognizing champion trees in 1925. The National Big Tree Program of the conservation group American Forests started in 1940. In 1970, 4-H and Future Farmers of America clubs started Virginia’s big tree program. Today there is a big-tree program in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The “champion” title is purely honorary, but these programs encourage people to keep special trees healthy and protected. They also help researchers find big examples of a particular species and show how the location of a species might have changed over time.

“Thirty years ago one would not find examples of Southern magnolias or bald cypress in northern Maryland,” said John Bennett of the Maryland Big Tree program. “Today they are very common.”

How are champions chosen?

Whether it’s a state or national program, there’s a formula for big trees. Points are awarded for how tall a tree is (its height), how big around it is (its circumference, or girth) and how far its branches extend from the trunk (its spread).

For example, the grand sequoia mentioned earlier has a total score of 1,321 points, but the dwarf hackberry in Alexandria has only 111 points.

Sometimes there’s a tie. A chestnut oak at the edge of Battery Kemble Park in Northwest Washington is a national co-champion with another tree in Maryland. They have 407 points each: The District tree is taller, but the Maryland tree is fatter. So they share the honor.

Can I nominate a big tree?

Sure, anyone can! Many champion trees live on private property, such as in someone’s back yard. In addition, American Forests lists 200 species that don’t have champions, probably because no one ever thought to nominate that species. So find one of those, and you might have an instant champion!

With your parents’ permission, check state and national Web registries for the list of champions, their sizes and locations — then look around your neighborhood for possible contenders. Be sure to ask permission before going on other people’s property.

You’ll also find procedures for nominating a tree on these Web sites. Remember, your estimated measurements will have to be verified by experts, but if your nomination is selected, you’ll get listed as the finder!

Champion trees come and go as some die or bigger champions are found. Even if you don’t find a champion tree, it’s amazing to just stop for a moment and study a magnificent tree and think of the stories it could tell.

Check out these champion trees

Maryland: www.mdbigtrees.com.

Virginia: www.web2.cnre.vt.edu/4h/bigtree.

National: www.americanforests.org/our-programs/bigtree. (Click on “tree tales” for stories about special trees.) Also has a page on geocaching — a GPS-based hide-and-seek game — for trees.

How do I measure a tree?

Experts use special tools to verify tree measurements, but you can estimate a tree’s size in several ways. Grab a buddy or a group of friends and give it a try. (To find out what kind of tree you are measuring, this Web site can help identify a leaf: www.dendro.cnre.vt.edu/forsite/key/intro.htm.)

Circumference: Wrap a tape measure around the tree at a point that is 4 1 / 2 feet above the ground. Measure in inches.

Height: This can be tricky, so practice first on a tree that’s in a large, flat open area.

●Stretch one arm straight out in front of you while holding a straight stick about two feet long vertically in that hand. The top of your fist should be at your eye level.

●Have someone measure the distance from your fist to your eye. Say it’s 10 inches — adjust the stick so that your fist is that many inches from the top of the stick.

●Now, face the tree while holding the stick vertically, and again stretch your arm out straight. Slowly and carefully walk backward until the base of the tree lines up with the top of your fist and the top of the tree lines up with the top of the stick.

●Mark the spot where you’re standing and measure the distance, in feet, from there to the tree. This distance is the approximate height of the tree. (See photo Number 3.)

Spread: Have a buddy help you. Look at the spread of the branches. Think of the tree as having four sides. Stand on opposite sides of the tree, under the tips of the branches farthest from the trunk. Mark your spots on the ground and measure the distance between them. (Measure as close to the trunk as possible.) Then do the same on the two other sides. Add the two numbers and divide by 2. That is the average spread of the tree’s crown. (Points are given for average spread in feet divided by 4. See illustration.)

— Ann Cameron Siegal

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