The Missouri Conservationist’s first celebration of Missouri’s champion trees featuring paintings by Jane Bick Mudd appeared in the March 2016 issue. Reconnect with it at short.mdc.mo.gov/Znc.
On a bright, windy afternoon last March, Jane Mudd set out to paint Fred and Mary Jo Wilson’s champion pecan tree. This battered old survivor stands alone in a river bottom crop field in Cooper County. In 2019, floodwaters kept Mudd from setting up her easel to paint the tree, but this day, she hiked 300 yards across the now-solid bottom carrying canvas, easel, and pack.
Mudd taught painting at Williams Woods University in Fulton for 23 years. When she retired in 2019, she set out to paint a second selection of Missouri’s champion trees for the Conservationist. Her project took her to six locations around the state. To paint a tree as Mudd does, on location and often in challenging conditions, she gets to know a tree and its place in ways few others do. ”For me, it is important to get the feel of the tree, and that requires spending time with it,” she said. She also enjoys getting to know the owners and caretakers of these ancient champions when she can.
The Wilsons’ pecan tree became a state champion in 2012, and they proudly display a framed MDC state champion tree certificate in the entryway of their farmhouse. For most of their lives, the couple farmed the bottom and raised 10 to 12 acres of vegetables to sell on Main Street in Boonville. Now in their 70s, they have retired from farming.
Fred Wilson’s parents moved to the farm in the spring of 1956. “The pecan had a big crop on it that year, and we picked up 470-some pounds,” he recalled. “But it had no more until ’63. It’s had two little crops since then, and that’s it.”
Wilson said he thinks the tree is about 200 years old, and he noted that it has changed a lot since he was a boy.
“The tree is all top, no trunk,” he said. “But when we first moved here, you couldn’t reach up and touch the limbs. When I farmed, I’d pull up under it with the tractor and sit in the shade and rest.”
Wilson said the pecan tree still puts out leaves, “but some of the limbs are dying. The river has put so much fill dirt around it — it’s suffocating it.”
“I don’t like to see it die,” he said. “If that thing could talk, it could tell you what all it’s seen.”
Isolated in the middle of the bottom with only a levee between it and the river, the lone pecan endured many floods, witnessed hundreds of plantings and harvests as well as continued efforts to control the river. It is humble, stoic, worldly, trying to tell us something. I’m not sure this tree had many admirers or praise, but owners Fred and Mary Jo Wilson appreciated that tree from the beginning of their farming days. And I think they, too, fit the selfless, stoic, and resilient nature of that tree.
Mary Jo Wilson 1947–2020
We’re sad to note that Mary Jo Wilson died Nov. 16, 2020. The Boonville community will remember her for her vegetable truck “with the rainbow umbrellas.” Fred still lives at the farmhouse, where he plans to plant a little patch of vegetables this spring.
Height: 86 feet
Spread: 114 feet
Circumference: 236 inches
Conservation nonprofit American Forests and MDC use the following formula to assess a point value for big trees:
Height in feet + ¼ average crown spread in feet + trunk circumference in inches, measured at 4.5 feet above the ground
A Playground Sentinel
The Show-Me State’s champion blue ash stands near the playground in Sturgeon’s City Park in northern Boone County.
Sturgeon Mayor Steve Crosswhite said the tree was probably on-site when the Sturgeon Board was established in 1955. “I believe this tree is easily over 60 years old,” he said.
Angela George, the last MDC forester to measure the tree (July 2016), noted that it’s rare to see a blue ash in a city location. “Ash are fairly tolerant of soil compaction, so this trait may have helped this tree to withstand being in the middle of a high-use area,” she added.
She also noted that this blue ash, like all ashes in Missouri, is in danger of emerald ash borer (EAB) attack. “EAB is an exotic, invasive, wood-boring insect that infests and kills native North American ash trees,” she said.
Mayor Crosswhite is consulting with an MDC community forester about protecting the city’s ash trees. Despite its vulnerability to the EAB, Sturgeon’s towering champion blue ash stands at the edge of City Park, ready to welcome families and shade children at play.
More information on the emerald ash borer is available at short.mdc.mo.gov/ZE7.
This tall, stand-alone, and I thought somewhat unassuming blue ash is still alive after so many have disappeared recently in this state. Maybe it is the joyful shouts from the swings and slides that have kept it healthy for so long — or its nature of providing a welcoming shade. I had to use a tall canvas and focus on proportion with every paint stroke. This was painted late summer in 2019.
Sturgeon City Park’s Blue Ash
Height: 89 feet
Spread: 55 feet
Circumference: 101 inches
A Shady Gathering Place
With its joined trunks, it’s easy to see why couples want to get married under Blue Bell Farm’s champion Osage orange tree near Fayette in Howard County. The Bryant family has owned the farm for seven generations, and it is currently a wedding venue.
Jamie Bryant co-owns the business with her husband, Derek. “We love the tree,” she said. “We’ve taken tons of photos with our daughter when she was growing up. She loved climbing on this fixture in our family life.”
When a Los Angeles woman with Missouri family saw a Blue Bell wedding photo featuring the Osage orange on Instagram, she wanted to have her wedding underneath it, Bryant said.
“They had a small wedding under the tree in October 2020,” she said.
The Osage orange located at the entrance to Blue Bell Farm in Fayette is quite imposing with its double trunks, wide base, and gnarly bark. I typically stand when painting outside, but I decided to sit to be low and close to the base. This was painted in October 2019. The light moving across the trunk revealed not only the contrasting shadows but the warm/cool contrasts as well. I really don’t see such intense color in the beginning. It is only after time spent looking and waiting that things start to happen.
Blue Bell Farm’s Osage Orange
Height: 86 feet
Spread: 68 feet
Circumference: 259 inches
A Forester’s Favorite
St. Louis-area resident Rik Work is proud of his family’s champion tulip tree. “It’s one tree I really coddle,” he said.
This champion is also a favorite of MDC Community Forester Mark Grueber. “I can say that this tulip tree is one of the most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen,” he said. “With permission, I’ve brought as many people to see that tree as possible. Everyone that has seen the tree is in awe of its size and beauty.”
“My wife adores this tree as well,” he said. “We both have numerous photos of it that we have as computer, phone, and TV wallpapers.”
The day I painted the tulip tree, there were kids doing exercises and drills in a nearby ballfield. The colossal tree had twisted, interactive branches randomly zooming out in all directions, some coming close to the ground. I set up on the edge of the ballfield to get a partial view in hopes of capturing a feel for the whole. I asked a willing volunteer, MDC Forester Mark Grueber, to sit on the bench — this helped me get a more accurate sense of scale.
Rik Work’s Tulip Tree
Height: 117 feet
Spread: 113 feet
Circumference: 230 inches
A Big “Small” Tree
In Lawrence and Barry counties, Monett’s South Park is where you’ll find the state’s champion sassafras. To help visitors locate and identify the tree, South Park staff erected a sign there several years ago.
The tree is hard to miss, especially when it’s in full, fall-color glory, but it’s likely most people wouldn’t recognize it as a sassafras unless they’re familiar with the tree’s leaf shape. Usually a small-to-medium mid-story tree, sassafras typically forms colonies from root sprouts.
This champion’s single trunk is about 6 feet across. MDC Forester Cody Bailey said it’s hollow and “really big, really old.
“When (sassafras) get 6 to 8 inches across at breast height, they tend to die,” he said. “They’re kind of a softer wood, not well protected like oak.”
South Park’s foreman, Kevin Smith, said people ask him all the time where the sassafras is. When I saw it, I knew it was the perfect time to paint it. The leaves were every shade of green, gold, and red-orange. It had both a gnarly and stately appearance. My painting process is almost always based on trial and error. I think this struggle helps me to get to know the tree somewhat. It can also allow for more spontaneity in making changes as the sun moves across the sky, revealing parts (and colors) that were unseen just moments before.
Monett’s South Park Sassafras
Height: 56 feet
Spread: 39 feet
Circumference: 197 inches
Champion of Champions
Of the six trees Mudd painted for this story, the LaValle Family Trust’s bald cypress in New Madrid County is the champion of champions with 456 points.
Bobby LaValle and his family have farmed in Missouri’s Bootheel Region for generations.
His maternal grandfather, W.T. Riley, bought the land where the champion bald cypress stands in the 1930s or ‘40s. The original parcel was 8,000 acres, and most of it was cut for timber, “except for a few low spots,” LaValle said.
He credits his mother, who inherited the land with the “low spots,” for saving the remaining cypresses. “Mom wanted the bald cypress saved,” he said.
LaValle said an MDC forester measured the tree in the late ‘80s, and, with a trunk “10 foot across the base,” it became the state champion.
LaValle mentioned other big trees found near the champion bald cypress — swamp cottonwood and Drummond’s red maple, for example. But it’s the bald cypress he frets about.
“We had an ice storm 2009, and it was one of those storms that broke transfer lines for 50 miles — it was just unbelievable,” he said. “That cypress is closest to the levee, and it survived the ice storm,” he said, but he’s not sure it can survive another epic ice storm.
“Can I put a lightning rod in it?” he asked. “I think it’s worth protecting. Looking for someone to do lightning protection if they want to get in touch with me.”
A dedicated conservationist, LaValle said he and his family will “always keep the 40 acres (where the champion cypress stands) in the trust jointly in perpetuity.”
Setting up was quite comical, my French easel was slowly sinking into the foot of water. But once I got it all somewhat stable and then mixed up some color, I began to feel like the luckiest person alive — to be there at that moment in such an enchanted place. The cypress stood out among all the others as dark and looming and huge! Around 3:30 p.m., the light dimmed considerably, and the first barred owl call came shortly thereafter. I did more revisions back in the studio for clarity’s sake, including adding a little barred owl. I painted this in November 2020.
Bobby LaValle’s Bald Cypress
Height: 111 feet
Spread: 72 feet
Circumference: 327 inches
“I credit Missouri artist and educator Frank Stack for teaching me what painting from life really means.” —Jane Mudd
Will You Find the Next Champion?
Champions are found in places that are protected or relatively undisturbed — a yard, a park, a campus, a farm, or a state conservation area.
Start your big tree search by browsing MDC’s State Champion Trees webpage at short.mdc.mo.gov/Z4i. There you’ll find eligibility criteria, details on measuring for a champion tree, a Missouri Champion Tree nomination form, a list of current champions, and an interactive champion tree tour. Happy hunting!