In Search of Champions

By Bruce Palmer | December 2, 2002
From Missouri Conservationist: Dec 2002

Few things in nature command our interest, respect and awe as much as a big tree. As children, we climbed, hung swings and built tree houses in big trees. As adults, we find solitude and comfort under their leafy canopies. As a society, we derive benefits from trees that we can find nowhere else.

By the early part of the twentieth century, most of the forests in the eastern United States were cut for building lumber, railroad ties and fuel wood. Few groves of big trees remained east of the Great Plains. By 1940, involvement in another world war loomed over America. The need for wood to meet the demands of a growing nation and the war effort would be great.

Joseph Stearns, a researcher with the Southern Hardwood Producers in Memphis, Tenn., published an article in the September 1940 issue of American Forests called, "Let's Find and Save the Biggest Trees." In the article he said, "I believe that a few of our biggest specimens of each tree species should be singled out, marked, plotted on timber maps and preserved. All lumber company employees should be notified that such trees are not to be cut, damaged by felling adjacent trees or scarred by careless axemen."

Thus was born the idea for a big tree list. Today this list is called the National Register of Big Trees. The national program is administered by American Forests, a private forest conservation organization. All 50 states have big tree coordinators and participate in the program. In Missouri, we call it the Champion Tree Program.

The purpose of the Champion Tree Program is to recognize and record the largest known specimen of every tree species in the state. To be eligible for listing, a species must be native or naturalized. Native trees are those found growing wild in our forests. Naturalized trees are exotic (introduced) species that have become common and establish themselves as if they are native. Horticultural varieties, hybrids and exotic species are excluded from the list.

Champion trees are scored on a point system. A tree's total points are determined by the sum of its trunk circumference (in inches) at 4.5 feet above the ground, height (in feet) and one-fourth of the average crown spread (in feet). The formula gives more weight to trunk circumference and height than crown size. An open-grown tree will have a large crown, while a tree growing in a forest has a much smaller crown. This formula reduces the effect crown size has on total points. Trees that score within five points of each other are listed as co-champions.With this system, the biggest tree on record in Missouri is a baldcypress in New Madrid County with 456 points. Close behind is a sycamore in Cape Girardeau with 453 points. The baldcypress also has the largest trunk of any tree in the state. Its circumference is 310 inches, or more than 8 feet in diameter. The tallest tree is the 150-foot national champion pumpkin ash in Big Oak Tree State Park. By comparison, the largest tree on the national register is a whopping 1,300-point giant sequoia.

Anyone can nominate a champion tree. In fact, most of the nominations received every year are from people who have found a big tree on their land or in their neighborhood. Even before there was a champion tree list, Joseph Stearns predicted its popularity, saying that big tree hunting is " . . . a happy task in which everyone going into the woods can participate."

Measuring a champion tree is relatively simple. If your tree is close to the record, you may want to have your local Conservation Department forester verify the species and measurements for the official records. Nomination forms and a list of current champions are also available from Conservation Department offices or can be printed from our web site at The owner and nominator of each champion tree will receive a certificate mounted on a walnut plaque and earn all the bragging rights associated with finding or owning a champion tree.

Where to Find Champion Trees

Missouri's champion trees are found throughout the state, in parks, cemeteries, woodlots and front yards. Any place where trees are relatively undisturbed and are left to grow has the potential to have a champion tree. Listed below are some public areas where visitors can view champion trees.

Big Oak Tree State Park in Mississippi County has been called the "Park of Champions." It probably has more big trees within its boundaries than anywhere else in the state. Big Oak Tree is home to six state champion trees, including pumpkin ash, swamp chestnut oak, rusty blackhaw, persimmon, possumhaw and black willow. Two of these, the persimmon and pumpkin ash, also qualify as national champs. The big trees are marked, and hiking trails make access to them easy.

On the opposite side of the state, Kansas City's Swope Park holds five champions: blackhaw, rock elm, downy hawthorn, dwarf chinkapin oak and peachleaf willow. The biggest blue ash is found in Sturgeon City Park. Montauk State Park has the largest butternut, and the champion witch-hazel is found near Johnson's Shut-Ins.A good number of Missouri's champion trees are found in cemeteries, possibly because once the trees are planted, they are cared for and are seldom disturbed. Lorimier Cemetery in Cape Girardeau, one of the oldest cemeteries in the area, has two champion trees: Osage-orange and sugarberry. Only a few miles to the west is McKendree Cemetery, where the champion black hickory and winged elm are found. Other cemeteries with big trees include:

  • Robinson Cemetery (Marion County) - catalpa
  • Pleasant Valley (Scott County) - green hawthorn
  • Pleasant Site (Carter County) - scarlet oak
  • Ekey (Franklin County) - swamp white oak.

Fourteen champion trees are found on lands managed by the Conservation Department. As you might imagine, the conservation areas in the Bootheel have the most champion trees. A pair of co-champion water hickories are growing on Coon Island Conservation Area, in Butler County, along with biggest river birch, Nuttall oak and planertree. Nearby, at Allred Lake Natural Area, are the champion buttonbush, cedar elm and water tupelo.

Several other conservation areas are home to big trees, including:

  • Holly Ridge C.A. (Stoddard County) - hazel alder
  • Caney Mountain C.A. (Ozark County) - blackgum
  • Weldon Springs C.A. (St. Charles County) - roughleaf dogwood
  • Woods C.A. (Phelps County) - red maple
  • Hemenway C.A. (Ripley County) - overcup oak
  • Eck C.A. (Texas County) - shortleaf pine

Champion trees are not marked on conservation areas, so get directions and a map from the area manager.

How to Measure a Champion Tree

Circumference is measured at 4.5 feet above the ground. If a growth or branch is located at this point, measure below it where the circumference is least. If the tree forks below 4.5 feet, measure the largest fork at 4.5 feet.

To measure the circumference, locate a point 4.5 feet above the ground on the trunk and place the zero end of the tape there. Wrap the tape tightly around the trunk, without sagging, so that it exactly meets the zero end of the tape. Read the circumference in feet and inches.

Height is the distance between the base and topmost branch of the tree. Tree height may be measured using instruments such as an Abney level, clinometer or transit. A simple but accurate method works in the following manner. Make a target of a known height (5 feet works well when measuring tall trees). You will also need a ruler or yardstick. Place the target against the tree, but make sure it is visible as you walk back to measure. Be sure the target is vertical. Holding the ruler vertically, back up from the tree until the five-foot target exactly fills one inch on the ruler. Without moving the ruler, sight from the base to the top of the tree. Note the number of inches on the ruler that is filled by the tree. Each inch equals five feet. If the tree occupied 18 inches on the ruler, then the tree is 90 feet tall (18 x 5). Take measurements from several points around the tree and average to get the most accurate reading.

Crown spread can be measured by setting a stake or flag directly under the outside edge of the crown farthest from the trunk. Set another directly opposite it at the outer edge of the crown on a line passing through the center of the tree. Next, set stakes marking the shortest diameter of the crown passing through the center of the tree. Measure both diameters to the nearest foot with a tape measure. Add the two measurements together and divide the sum by two to obtain the average crown spread.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler