National Champion Trees

Posted on 29 May 2016

Champion treeThe surprising pedigree of a botanical idea.

In 1914, the American Genetic Association—a eugenics organization—sponsored a contest to find the largest trees in America, excluding conifers. The AGA was interested in trees that achieved “greatest development” in human landscapes. The results were published in the Journal of Heredity (formerly American Breeder’s Magazine) the following year. A sycamore surrounded by a corn field in Indiana won the prize with a 42-inch circumference. The authors of the report called for the preservation of “magnificent members of the vegetable kingdom”—though they stopped short of making direct comparisons to human breeding.

In the late 1910s, possibly in response to the eugenicists, the American Forestry Association—a much larger organization—started its own initiative: the “Hall of Fame for Trees.” It encouraged people across the country to nominate remarkable specimens from their hometowns. Of the dozens of nominees chosen to be profiled in the magazine American Forests in 1920–1922, many fit into the nineteenth-century tradition of “historic trees”—plants that had “witnessed” patriotic history. For example, the Daughters of the American Revolution nominated Washington trees, Lafayette trees, and so on. But, significantly, some of the hall-of-famers were simply big, beautiful trees with no historical associations. Although the AFA indicated that it wanted “trees with a history rather than trees of unusual size,” it contradicted itself with its first inductee—the Wye Oak of Maryland, a tree noteworthy only for size.

The Hall of Fame for Trees later morphed into the Social Register of Big Trees, now called the National Big Tree Program. Since 1940, the American Forestry Association has maintained a species-by-species register of “champion” specimens based on scoring. Trunk circumference in inches + Height in feet + Average crown spread in feet, divided by four = Total points. Each year, new winners are announced.

This system was inspired by Fred Besley, an early graduate of Yale’s forestry school, who served as Maryland’s state forester for nearly four decades. In 1925, Besley sponsored his first statewide “Big Tree contest.” Using crowdsourcing, he determined that the Wye Oak was in fact the largest white oak in the state—and the nation. Thanks to Besley’s efforts, Maryland purchased the parcel around the oak, made it a postage-stamp state park, and also adopted the species (Quercus alba) as the official state tree.

Wye Oak, once first of champion trees

To this day, the quantification and listing of national champion trees remains popular in the United States. There is something distinctively American about the practice: bigger means better, biggest wins best. British and European dendrophiles have recently borrowed the “champion tree” idea, but only the U.S. has a formal size competition.

A distant echo of the eugenics movement can still be heard in champion tree talk. In recent years, the U.S.-based Archangel Ancient Tree Archive has made worldwide news with its project of cloning champion trees. (“Champion Trees are the Answer” is the organization’s motto.) By propagating the “best of the best” trees, the archive hopes to promote reforestation and carbon sequestration. The charity made clones of the Wye Oak before it died in 2002. The logic of the group’s well-meaning program derives more from American culture than plant science. Most champion trees are not in fact genetically superior, but simply lucky: the beneficiaries of optimal habitat.