Virginia ranks fifth among states having the most big tree specimens, with 57 national champion trees, according to the 2016 American Forests Champion Trees national register.
Virginia gained 12 new champion trees this year, including a pussy willow in Page County, a loblolly pine in Northampton, and a laurel oak in Chesapeake.
Among Virginia’s other champions are a water tupelo in Greensville (the largest of the state’s champion trees), a southern bayberry (the state’s smallest champ), a swamp dogwood in the City of Franklin, and a dwarf hackberry in Alexandria.
Several trees were also delisted this year, including a Chinese privet, a pumpkin ash, and a black cherry.
According to Eric Wiseman, associate professor of urban forestry and arboriculture in the College of Natural Resources and Environment and coordinator of the Virginia Big Tree Program, these trees were delisted because of a change in American Forests’ measurement requirements for trees with “atypical trunk development” such as split trunks or multiple stem trunks.
“A lot of gigantic trees have multiple stemmed trunks or those that fork near the ground line, making them difficult to measure,” he said. “The national cadre, who consult on measurement guidelines, tightened up their requirements and scrutinized these types of trees to make sure they were being judged fairly and equitably across the country.”
With the new measurement guidelines in mind, Wiseman said that he and other program volunteers plan to remeasure and resubmit some multistemmed trees to the register.
The Virginia Big Tree Program, managed by Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, maintains a register of the largest specimens of over 300 native and non-native tree species in Virginia and works to educate the public about the value of trees and forests.
Volunteers nationwide, referred to as big tree hunters, search for and nominate trees for the Champion Trees national register, which is updated each year. The register then lists the largest trees in the country for more than 660 species.
In order to be eligible for inclusion on the register, trees must be at least 9-and-a-half inches in circumference and at least 13 feet in height. In addition, only certain species of native and naturalized trees are considered eligible.
A tree’s size is based on a formula that includes trunk diameter (measured 4-and-a-half feet above the ground), height, and the average spread of the crown, or upper branches. From these three measurements, a point value is assigned to each tree, and the trees with the most points are named champions.
According to Wiseman, most champion trees are also veteran trees, often having survived more than 100 years. As a result, there is often frequent turnover on the registry, as older trees die. Some champion trees, however, can grow much more quickly when presented with optimal growing conditions.
Wiseman went on to explain that the mild climate in Virginia provides optimal growing conditions for many species, helping to keep multiple Virginia champions on the register year after year.
“We have a very diverse physiography in Virginia,” he said. “We have major physiographic areas and many diverse ecosystems, so a lot of species can thrive here.”
“Big tree programs like this can really demonstrate to the public what trees can achieve,” Wiseman continued. “Nearly 80 percent of the state population lives in urban areas, so they don’t see trees that are reaching their biological potential. Many trees in urban areas do not live longer than 20 to 25 years due to the harsh growing conditions. When you contrast the biggest sugar maple on the register to the one you see in the local park, it’s easy to develop appreciation for the sheer size trees can achieve in a more natural growing environment.”
If you have a champion tree on your property, Wiseman recommends having a certified arborist examine it to identify any threats or deficiencies early on.
“A lot of things about tree care are a mystery to the average homeowner," he said. "Unless you know the science, you don’t know what to be aware of. These are living organisms, and once certain issues have manifested, we have a very limited capability to rehabilitate the trees.”