Champion trees are the super-sized superstars of their species. Blessed by a “perfect storm” of superb growing conditions, Teflon-like resilience to hazards and perhaps a bit of luck, these tree VIPs show what’s possible when everything goes just right in nature.
Around the world, efforts are ongoing to locate the largest trees of each species wherever they grow. In the United States, American Forests National Big Tree Program has maintained a national register of American champion trees since 1940, which currently lists over 750.
It may sound like work reserved for arboreal experts, but tracking down the planet’s biggest trees is actually a collective effort that anyone can join. Amateur tree buffs, citizen scientists and school kids alike are invited to locate and nominate potential champions to help honor the branchy giants among us.
Making a champion
Start by finding an organization that crowns big-tree winners. Scout out nearby state or city tree organizations — examples include the Oregon and Washington Champion Tree Registry and Trees Atlanta. Or go national with American Forests (AF).
Next, pick a tree to nominate. To find a contender, some people decide on a specific tree species and start hunting. Others know of large trees in their area (whatever the species) or stumble upon one while hiking or camping.
Before going too far in the nominating process, make sure the tree species you have in mind is eligible to have a champion. AF, for example, lists over 900 eligible species, 200 of which don’t yet have a registered champion.
Also be certain the tree you’ve pinpointed isn’t already listed as a champion. Here’s AF’s register of current champions. And don’t worry about dethroning the reigning champ; the point is to find the biggest tree, and yours may be the new No. 1.
The next step is measuring your tree. AF requires participants to calculate the trunk circumference, height and average reach of the branches (crown spread). Each measure is awarded points and tallied for a total score (representing a tree’s wood volume). Trees with the highest score win. Thus, a champion may not be the tallest of its species or have the thickest trunk; it’s the combination of all three measurements that determines its champion status.
Arriving at calculations can be a bit complicated. There’s a lot of recommended equipment, from a simple tape measure to a handheld laser hypsometer, which provides height, range and angle measurements. AF details its requirements in a tree-measuring handbook published in 2014.
Wearing the crown
Consult your tree organization on how to submit your tree for consideration. AF allows nominations from March 1 to Arbor Day each year (last Friday of April), and results are released every July.
This year, 64 new champions were added to AF’s National Register, including a coast Douglas fir in Oregon that’s now ranked the nation’s 10th largest tree.
Here are other notable champion trees in the United States (both living and dead).
Arkansas's bald cypress
Another large champion tree is this bald cypress tree in Arkansas. Located in the Dale Bumpers White River National Refuge, the tree can be difficult to get to since it's located in swampy waters for much of the year. This did not stop Arkansas Forestry Commission officials who remeasured the tree and found that it had grown considerably since it was last measured in 2004. The tree now stands 43 feet in circumference and 120 feet high. Not only is it the tallest bald cypress in the state, it's the tallest tree in all of Arkansas.
The reigning giant sequoia is not only No. 1 on AF’s big-tree list, but it’s also the largest living organism on the planet. Located in California, this 2,000+-year-old colossus has been the titleholder since 1940. General Sherman stands at 275 feet tall with a trunk over 36 feet in diameter at its base (about the width of a three-lane highway).
Also in California, this champion coast redwood is the largest of its species in the world and the second biggest tree on AF’s list. It reaches 321 feet with a 26-foot trunk diameter. Incidentally, the tallest tree in the world is also a coast redwood named Hyperion. Towering at 379 feet (about 60 feet taller than Big Ben in London and more than twice the height of the Statue of Liberty), the tree's exact location in the California redwoods forest is kept secret to protect it from tourists. Hyperion doesn’t have the massive trunk and crown spread needed to dethrone Lost Monarch — at least not yet.
Tree-lovers can still visit the famous Wye Oak at this memorial erected near where the fallen giant once stood in Wye Mills, Maryland. (Photo: Jeff Weese/flickr)
Some champions have witnessed a chunk of history. In 1919, AF (then the American Forestry Association) inducted this giant white oak located in Maryland into its “Hall of Fame.” By 1940, when AF named the Wye Oak to its first national register of champion trees, it measured 95 feet tall and almost 28 feet in trunk diameter. The Wye Oak reigned supreme as the largest of its kind until June 2002 when it was downed by wind in a severe thunderstorm at an estimated age of 450 years.
Another lost champion, this massive bald cypress in Seminole County, Florida, was destroyed in a fire set by an arsonist in 2012. At the time it reached 118 feet tall with a trunk diameter of 17.5 feet. The Senator fell just shy of being the national bald cypress champion but ruled as Florida’s state champion for years. It was believed by many to be 3,500 years old, the world’s oldest tree at the time.
The long-lived saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) is America’s largest cactus. These slow growers often take 50 to 100 years before sprouting their first arms. (Photo: Katja Schulz/flickr)
To most of us this is a cactus, but AF lists the saguaro in its tree register alongside more “tree-like” species. The current saguaro titleholder — located in Pinal, Arizona — debuted on the list in 2014 and reaches an impressive 54 feet (about the height of a five-story building).
Not all champion trees are giants. They’re just the biggest of their species. In the case of the diminutive Reverchon hawthorn, the current champ grows in Dallas and is the smallest “big tree” on AF’s list, reaching only 9 feet tall.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in October 2016 and has since been updated with new information.