Bellefontaine Cemetery holds three state champion trees

News from the region
Saint Louis
Published Date

ST. LOUIS, Mo. -- Bellefontaine Cemetery is one St. Louis' oldest and most famous burial grounds. It's the final resting place of both local and national notables, such as William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, brewer baron Adolphus Busch, rifle maker Samuel Hawken, and aviation pioneer James S. McDonnell.

But it's also a great place to enjoy some of our state's most beautiful trees. The cemetery, located at 4947 West Florissant Avenue in the city of St. Louis, harbors three official Missouri State Champion Trees. The State Champion Tree Program is administered by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and recognizes Missouri's largest native trees by species.

The cemetery's three champions include the state's largest American Elm (Ulmus Americana), Red Mulberry (Morus rubra), and Shingle Oak (Quercus imbricaria).
Bellefontaine Cemetery has a storied history. According to the cemetery's horticulturist Kyle Cheesborough, it was founded as a rural landscape cemetery in 1849. At the time, it was five miles outside the city boundary. Bellefontaine Cemetery was established after a deadly cholera epidemic attacked St. Louis during the summer of that same year, leaving more than 4,000 victims. It took its name from Fort Bellefontaine since it was on the road to the fort, which was located on the Missouri River north of the cemetery.

"It's a very park-like cemetery with 314 acres of magnificent old growth trees and wonderful monuments ," said Cheesborough, "Cemeteries tend to be wonderful places for trees. They can grow unchecked with a lot of room."

"Bellefontaine Cemetery is a wonderful example of a community forest that puts a lot of time and effort into maintaining their trees," said MDC Community Forester Mark Grueber, who is especially impressed with Bellefontaine. "It's a cemetery that takes a lot of pride in their trees."

Of the American Elm, Cheesborough said it's one of the cemetery's most stately trees and based on size estimates it to be older than the cemetery itself. The tree measures 191 inches in circumference, 102 feet high, with a spread of 122 feet.

"The red mulberry is almost like a storybook tree, with very gnarled, large spreading branches," Cheesborough stated. He described the raspberry-like fruit it produces in the spring as a buffet for wildlife. The red mulberry measures 189 inches in circumference, 51 feet high, and has a spread of 58 feet.

"The shingle oak is a rather interesting tree. It's very large and extremely upright," said Cheesborough. It measures 174 inches in circumference, 109 feet high, with a spread of 95 feet.

According to Grueber, selecting Missouri's Champion Trees is based on a formula which gives the tree a point value. Points are determined by a tree's height, crown spread and trunk size. The formula adds the circumference in inches (measured at a point 4.5 feet above the ground) to the height in feet, to one-fourth of the average crown spread.

State Champion trees are often discovered and nominated by members of the public. Grueber recommends that if a person feels they may know a possible candidate they should first correctly identify the tree, and measure the trunk as previously described. After that first step, they can then go to on MDC's website and download the nomination form, fill it out and submit it with a photo of the tree. A complete list and specifications of all current Missouri Champion Trees can also be found there.

There's always the potential to discover a new champion. "We get surprised all the time," said Grueber.