Down in the Missouri River bottoms near McBaine, bean fields dominate the view. Then, suddenly, around a bend, a lone tree looms large. A gigantic bur oak towers above the landscape like an arboreal exclamation point.
Nearby, artist Jane Bick Mudd paints instinctively, eyes fixed on the tree. She has begun what she calls a three-way conversation between herself, the tree, and the canvas. “I’ve painted this tree many times,” she says. “And it seems no matter how big my canvas is, I can never fit that tree on it.”
Today’s canvas — big enough to celebrate a larger-than-life tree that enjoys regional rock-star status — barely fits in the back of her car.
Jane is an assistant professor of art at William Woods University. She enjoys painting in the outdoors, or en plein air, as it is called (see related story). The McBaine bur oak has long been a popular subject with the state’s plein air artists. “I try to capture the personality of the tree,” Jane says. “I spend time getting to know the tree’s uniqueness. I believe things are revealed in this observation that a photograph just can’t capture. The outcome is unpredictable and surprising, but if I’m really listening — successful.” Jane’s paintings featured here are all champion trees — the biggest known examples of each species — from around the state.
“I’m fascinated that Missouri has so many champion trees and that the
Conservation Department is taking care to promote them and keep track of them. The trees I visited certainly had an enduring and commanding presence about them. These trees evoke integrity, endurance, and are selfless, always giving and forgiving.”
McBaine’s Bur Oak
The state champion bur oak, located near Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, has survived the Civil War, lightning strikes, fire, the flood of 1993, and more. Estimates place the tree’s age at 300 to 400 years old.
Writer Eva Dou, of the Los Angeles Times, put it best in 2010. “People have partied, prayed, proposed, politicked, and had their ashes spread under the revered bur oak.” For six generations, John Sam Williamson’s family has cared for the bur oak. “We own the land where the tree is, but it’s everybody’s tree,” says John Sam.
This tree has been the state’s champion bur oak since 1987. It measures 295 inches around, is 74 feet tall, has a spread of 129 feet, and scored 401 points using the state’s measuring system (see sidebar on Page 23 for more information). “It’s genetically superior or it wouldn’t have lived that long, but it’s also really lucky. I think it will outlive all of us,” John Sam says. Learn more about the Williamson family’s efforts to keep the tree healthy by viewing Keeper of the Tree, a short video, at bit.ly/1OPaQlA.
Dean Ogden’s Champion Slippery Elm
While some champion trees are discovered far from it all, the state champion slippery elm was “found” squarely in a Neosho man’s front yard. Dean Ogden knew the slippery elm was big, but he had no idea it was one for the record book.
“I didn’t know it was a state record,” Dean says of the tree that towers over his home, “but every time I went out there and weeded around it I thought, ‘Man, that’s a big tree!’”
A call to the Conservation Department led to a visit and some measuring by Community Forester Jon Skinner. Its measurements revealed a slippery elm tree that had no equal in the state. Dean’s elm measured 82 feet high and had a circumference of 14 feet, 7 inches. Its spread measured 65 feet, and it scored a total of 273 points.
“I bought this place 11 years ago because I wanted that big tree in my front yard,” Dean says. “I grew up in Carthage and saw how elm disease wiped out a lot of the town’s trees. I thought, how did this one survive? Because there were no other elm trees around it.” Dean encourages people to visit the tree in his yard. “I’ve had school groups come out to see it. It’s a special tree. The trunk is almost 7 feet long-ways — it’s like four or five trees in one. It’s just hard to believe.” Slippery elms, also known as red elm, are found across Missouri. They are water-loving trees that reach their largest size on moist, rich soils on lower slopes and in bottomlands. The tree in Dean’s yard likely grew so large due to being located in a stream valley with good soil, abundant moisture, and protection from strong winds. “I’m a conservationist,” Dean says, “and I’m looking out for it.”
Missouri Botanical Garden’s White Basswood
In the heart of St. Louis, the state’s champion white basswood adds to the regal air of the architecturally stunning Museum Building, one of the original structures built at the Missouri Botanical Garden more than 150 years ago.
“It’s pretty amazing, really. We’ve got the state champion white basswood on one side of the sidewalk, and the former state champion possum haw directly across from it,” says Ben Chu, horticulture supervisor at the Missouri Botanical Garden, one of St. Louis’ go to locations for nature lovers.
The white basswood is also a national champion. It measures 87 feet tall, has an 84-foot crown, a 158-inch circumference, and scored 266 points. After craning your neck to admire it and touring the ground’s immense gardens and forests, it’s hard to believe the area was virtually treeless when Henry Shaw began it in 1859 on the Missouri prairie. Among his other duties at the garden, Ben ensures champion trees get extra attention. “We made sure the tree was lightning-protected with a copper ground. We also eliminated the turf under the tree. That helps reduce competition between the tree roots and the turf. We do what we can to eliminate compacted soil around it, so that the soil does a better job of absorbing moisture and oxygen.”
Two other former champion tree can also be found on the Garden’s 79-acre grounds, which are open to the public at 4344 Shaw Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63110. Learn more at mobot.org or call 314-577-5100.
Robinson Cemetery’s Northern Catalpa
In the northeast corner of Missouri, in Hannibal’s historic Robinson Cemetery, the state champion northern catalpa casts a broad shadow over many generations of African-Americans who now lie in rest there, including Elizabeth “Muddy” McElroy, age 100 years and 5 months. The tree is everything a champion should be. It is a behemoth and the perfect metaphor of strength in a place that celebrates lives well lived. The tree entered the pantheon of champions thanks to its massive girth — measuring more than 24 feet around. In addition to that 290-inch circumference, it stands 70 feet tall and has a 70-foot spread, earning it 378 points.
“Muddy” McElroy and many of her descendants share the shade from that tree, which was planted by a family member. According to the Hannibal Courier-Post, credit for planting the tree goes to Lita McElroy Washington, who planted it approximately 120 years ago.
Lita planted the sapling catalpa back then in the center of the family’s cemetery plot because her mother and father were buried there. She didn’t like the thought of them lying out there in the hot sun. Today, even Lita, who planted the tree, along with her husband, lies in rest under the mighty catalpa, although the exact site of their burial has been lost to time.
Big Oak Tree State Park’s Pumpkin Ash
To paint the state champion pumpkin ash, Jane traveled to the southeastern edge of Missouri. “I drove down to Big Oak Tree State Park not knowing what to expect,” she says.
“Imagine my surprise to find an old-growth forest in the midst of flat farmland. Except for a passing couple, I think I was the only one in the park,” she says. “It was a little drizzly, but I was able to get most of the painting done before the heavier rains came down.”
The champion pumpkin ash is easily viewed from the boardwalk. It stands 104 feet tall, has a 196-inch circumference, a 78-foot spread, and totaled 320 points. While state foresters were visiting the park to re-measure the champion ash, they stumbled upon an undiscovered champion.
“Lo and behold, we found a new champion. It had been right under my nose the whole time,” says Jen Weaver, the park’s natural resource steward. “We now have the champion sweet gum, too. It was right up front in the picnic area. It scored a 305. We beat out the old champion in Sikeston, not by much, but we’re claiming it.” That gives Big Oak Tree State Park bragging rights for four state champion trees: sweet gum, pumpkin ash, persimmon, and swamp chestnut oak. It has always been known as the park of champions. Many past state and national champion trees dot the 1,029-acre park, which preserves a rare, untouched bottomland hardwood forest that once covered vast areas of the Bootheel region. “We have so many big trees here, it’s easy to lose perspective. So many of our trees are absolutely massive,” Jen says. “I actually saw a Conservation Department forester skip when he saw our massive swamp chestnut oak.” Jen has gotten the champion tree bug and is on the hunt for more. “I’m on a mission. I plan to continue searching this winter,” she says. “There’s a good chance we’ll find another champion out there. We’re looking at wetland swamp species. I’m keeping my eye out for a sizable black willow and water elm, which only occur in the lowland southeastern region.”
Visit these champions at Big Oak Tree State Park, 13640 South Hwy 102, East Prairie, MO 63845. Before you travel, visit on.mo.gov/LLS1U5 or call 573-649-3149 for more information.
The Search for Missouri’s Champion Trees Continues
The five trees highlighted here offer just a sampling of the 120 trees certified as the biggest examples of their species in the Show-Me State. To view the full list, visit on.mo. gov/1nL04nU. Although some are on private land (and may not be available for public viewing), many are on public land, including conservation areas.
Remember that champions do indeed fall, and a new champion invariably rises to take its place. Some champion trees remain to be discovered on farms and in front yards across the state. So keep your eyes to the sky — you might just find Missouri’s next champion tree.
Learn More and Nominate New Champs
Learn how the big trees are measured, what species are eligible tobecome state champs, and how to nominate trees you find. Visit mdc.mo.gov/ChampionTrees.
Vote for Missouri’s Big Sassy Bassy
Each year, a Big Tree Madness competition pairs up champion treesfrom across the United States.
“It’s a fun way to take March Madness to a whole new level,” says Donna Baldwin, the Department’s state champion tree coordinator. “Missouri has won this contest twice, thanks to great support for our terrific trees.”
“We are hoping Missourians rally behind our champion tree for a solid win this year,” Donna says. “In 2014, our white basswood, nicknamed ‘Big Sassy Bassy,’ was defeated by Hawaii, but if more Missourians vote for Big Sassy this year, we can claim the title.” Crowning 2016’s ultimate champion is up to you. The competition is coordinated through American Forests’ Facebook page at Facebook.com/AmericanForests. Get the full scoop on Big Tree Madness guidelines at americanforests.org/bigtreemadness