HANNIBAL, Mo. — The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) recently crowned a new state champion American sycamore tree in Hannibal. MDC Forester David Vance presented the Missouri Champion Tree plaque to Linda Coleberd, who owns the land where the tree stands along Cave Hollow Drive at the Mark Twain Cave Complex.
American Sycamore (Plantanus occidentalis) is native to Missouri, and noted for its fast growth, impressive stature, and unusual bark which sheds in thin plates to reveal distinctive white limbs. Sycamores attain the largest size of any deciduous tree in the U.S. and constitute an integral part of Missouri’s streamside habitats.
Its seeds are an important late winter food source for finches and were once a favorite food of the now-extinct Carolina parakeet. Sycamore trunk cavities provide shelter for mammals and for nesting birds including swifts and swallows. In Missouri, great blue herons favor sycamore canopies for their large nesting colonies.
Vance noticed the behemoth tree when he was visiting the Mark Twain Cave Complex, assisting staff with installation of a nearby nature trail.
“When I first saw the tree, the crown spread is what really stood out to me,” said Vance. “I kind of estimated the size, height, and spread to do a rough comparison with the current co-champions. Once I had a chance to look up the current champs’ measurements, I decided I needed to go out and take the exact measurements.”
Vance took an official measurement using a uniform formula to assess a point value to big trees. The formula, which accounts for the tree’s height, crown spread, and trunk size, scored 389 points for the sycamore on Coleberd’s property – with a 244-inch circumference, 108-foot height, and 146-foot crown spread.
If a tree is within four-points of a current champion, it becomes a co-champion. Two other American sycamore trees in Missouri currently share the title of co-champion with this tree in Hannibal – one on Pacific Palisades Conservation Area in St. Louis, and the other on private property in Perry County. All trees nominated that score within 10-points of a current champion are filed as contenders. Frequently, champion trees fall victim to storms, diseases, old age, or are simply cut down. When a champion tree falls, the next largest tree on file becomes the new champion.
Coleberd’s family has owned the property where this tree grows for more than a century. Prior to her family’s purchase of the property, Mark Twain frequently visited the cave complex which provided inspiration for his stories including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
“There’s no way to tell exactly how old the tree is,” said Vance. “The closest way without cutting it down is to multiply the diameter by the growth factor – sycamore has a factor of four – and you get 311 years. Since there are many different environmental factors that play into how fast a tree grows, you could probably add or subtract 50 years. So it’s possible that this tree was around when Mark Twain was exploring the area.”
In an effort to help generate awareness and appreciation for our state’s trees and forests, MDC invites everyone to join in the search for Missouri’s champion trees.
To learn more about MDC’s State Champion Tree Program visit short.mdc.mo.gov/Z4i.