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Fall 2012

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

October 9, 2012

The fall of a champion tree


Cemeteries and parks often harbor giants, planted centuries ago as living memorials, now grown into monumental champion trees. The Washington area hosts several state champions and national champions. Even co-champions live nearby.

In a tie for the national title of biggest American holly are a tag team of trees from both sides of the Potomac, one at the Chelsea House historic site in Prince George's County and another in Christ Church Cemetery, adjacent to Alexandria National Cemetery. The Alexandria tree stretches 68 feet into the heavens. Arborists are uncertain of the tree's age, but tombstones surrounding the tree date to the early 1800s.

Titles are awarded based on a point system derived from tree dimensions (see graphic). Even bantamweight species can earn a spot on the podium: At South Payne and Gibbon streets in Alexandria, along the perimeter of the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, is the national champ dwarf hackberry, living large at 41 feet tall.

The District sports its own winning big tree, a nonnative fruit tree from Asia. On the Capitol grounds is the U.S. champion common jujube, 93 inches in circumference, 61 feet tall.

Not all big trees reside on public land. When champions occupy private property, however, things can get complicated.

In 2004, the nation's second-largest sweet gum, Virginia's state champ, stood in the way of a planned office development near Merrifield. After Fairfax County urban foresters recommended preserving the tree, an arborist hired by the developer argued that the triple-trunked tree was "at high critical risk for major limb or trunk failure," according to zoning case records. The arborist warned of "many targets, both people and property."

Urban foresters disagreed, saying that pruning and installation of a cable support system would "reduce the potential failure risk to an acceptable level." However, to survive, the tree would require an undisturbed 50-foot radius around its trunk to accommodate the roots.

Unacceptable, said the developer: "Ten surface parking spaces and 15 garage parking spaces will have to be sacrificed to preserve the sweet gum."

Zoning officials agreed. By 2008, the tree was gone, replaced by three young beech trees and a large parking lot, which sat mostly empty on a recent weekday afternoon, with more than 100 parking spaces available.

"I am not happy about the removal of a very large and old sweet gum," says Michael P. Knapp, Fairfax County's urban forestry director, "but I am satisfied that a bona fide effort was made" to preserve the tree.

The county "arguably has the strongest local tree conservation ordinance" in Virginia, Knapp says. Adopted in 2009, the law requires planners to identify champion trees and to make attempts to protect them.

Think you might know of an unheralded champion? Check the links below:

NATIONAL CHAMPIONS

VIRGINIA CHAMPIONS

MARYLAND CHAMPIONS

THE DISTRICT CHAMPIONS

How a champion tree wins its title

Big tree scores are tallied from three measurements: Height, trunk circumference at chest height (4.5 feet) and a quarter of the average crown spread. A shorter, fatter tree can share the title with a thinner, taller tree of the same species.
If the numbers are close, arborists call it a tie.