By Dinah Voyles Pulver
Daytona Beach, FL (July 26, 2007)- Thanks to new rules in a competition to find and list the nation’s biggest trees, Volusia County’s only champion tree, a water hickory, may be about to lose its lofty title. On July 30, an all-new National Register of Big Trees soon will be announced. The massive old water hickory on the Lake George shore in Seville has been a national champion for years, but its title may be lost to a younger, faster-growing tree.
The American Forests organization keeps the national register, which includes nearly 1,000 species, including 160 in Florida. A tree is judged on a point scale based on its circumference, height and average width. This year, the organization adopted a new rule requiring all champion trees to be re-measured every 10 years. That’s expected to result in many changes to the list, because it leaves the door open for other prospective champions, which may be the case with the water hickory.
The hickory may be nearing the end of its life, said Kraig Jones, the Volusia County forester for the state Division of Forestry. But what a life it has been. Probably a young sapling when naturalist John Bartram visited Florida in the 1700s, the tree grew and flourished while the country was born, the state was formed and 16 million people moved in.
But the hickory, like many trees in the state, likely took a beating during the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes and has suffered in recent months with a record drought. About 60 state champions were felled by the hurricanes, said Charlie Marcus, who oversees urban forestry programs for the state forestry division and coordinates the state champion program. A tree can be a national champion or a state champion, if there’s a tree in another state that’s bigger.
Marcus said he expects to have new champions for about 30 of the species before the deadline. Foresters statewide have been out measuring trees and updating the list. “For the ones that we lost, we have champions in the wings,” he said. “And we’ll find more.” A new champion was found recently in Brevard County, a firebush tree, Marcus said. “When it’s flowering, it’s beautiful.”
Floridians can help with the effort, Jones said. “We’d encourage anybody who knows of a large old tree that might have a possibility of being a large champion tree to call us.” Even if the tree is only the third or fourth biggest, it’s kept on the list in the event something happens to one of the bigger trees. There aren’t any champion trees in Flagler County, and the foresters aren’t aware of any contenders.
The big-tree list was started in the 1940s to try to save the very biggest trees from the saw, but state forestry officials want to make sure people understand that being placed on the list doesn’t give a big tree any formal protection or create problems for the tree owner.
Today, the forest campaign works to make sure people continue to cherish the role trees play in their lives, said spokeswoman Michelle Robbins. “It gives people an appreciation for the grandest trees,” Robbins said. “It’s not only to recognize these truly spectacular examples, but to give people a broader understanding of what trees mean to us in our everyday lives.”
There are “all these terrific things” trees do for us, she said, including cool the air and help filter rainfall. The lives of humans and trees have always been linked. Trees inspire songs, poetry and great literature. They’re used to build homes, sailing ships and playgrounds. Recent studies have found that trees help lower crime in neighborhoods and soothe children with attention deficit disorder, Robbins said. “Besides that, it’s just fun to go look at them.”
The champion tree program attracts a lot of interest, and people call to find out where they are, Marcus said. He thinks it’s the historical significance, much like going to St. Augustine to see old buildings. “Except a tree is a living thing,” he said. “The bumps and bruises of the hickory tree, for example, have character. You never know if they might have been hit by a cannonball during the Civil War.”
Florida has had by far the most national champions, with as many as 163 at once. About 90 of those are found only in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties because they’re tropical species. Among the new potential champions are three more tropical species, Marcus said: the tamarind, an inkwood and a Jamaica caper.
Some 95 species don’t have a current champion, possibly because the species rarely grow to the minimum required size of 13.5 feet tall and 9 inches in circumference. Florida does plan to nominate at least one tree species that doesn’t have a champion at the moment, Marcus said — the Florida strangler fig.
As for the water hickory, only time will tell. But during a recent trip to take photos of the tree, someone spotted another hickory nearby that just might be a contender.
Did You Know?
* There are 826 eligible tree species in the nation, not including Hawaii.
* The champion cypress in Holmes County, Miss. measures 660 inches in circumference.
* There were 160 champion trees in Florida last year (most of any state).
* 94 tree species do not have a national champion.
* A tree’s circumference is measured at 4 1/2 feet in height.
* Only 3 trees remain from the original 1940 Big Trees Register list: a giant sequoia and western juniper in California and a Rocky Mountain juniper in Utah.
National Register of Big Trees
Daytona Beach News-Journal