1996 Ad

John K. Francis

Our boss once said, “People here don’t worry about time, because bananas ripen all year; and they don’t worry about what’s north or south, because if you go in any direction, you soon run into the ocean.” Likewise, why should people in Puerto Rico worry about trees, since they seem to spring up overnight? Right in front of our office grows an African mahogany (Khaya senegalensis) just four years old that measures 29 inches in girth and 44 feet in height.

Fortunately, people in Puerto Rico do care about their trees. While we were conducting a study of sidewalk damage by street trees, neighborhood residents noticed us surveying, wearing our hard hats and vests. People came out of their homes, alarmed that we might be planning to cut their beloved trees.

Over the last 200 years, Puerto Rico’s forests and trees have undergone precarious times. A dense population relying on subsistence farming felled the forests and cultivated almost to the tops of the mountain peaks. About nine-tenths of the forests disappeared; the remainder were heavily disturbed. Yet, so far as we know, all the native tree species have survived. Because of industrialization and prosperity, subsistence farming has ceased in the last five decades, and most steep and unproductive land has reverted back to forest or brushy pasture. With about 40 percent of Puerto Rico forested, and a lot more outside urban areas undergoing natural reforestation, one often feels lost in a paradise of lush vegetation.

The island hosts 547 native tree species, approaching the number (679) found in the continental U.S. (Species considered native and naturalized in the continental U.S., and therefore eligible for listing in the National Register of Big Trees, total 857.) Seventy-six of the Puerto Rican natives are also native to southern Florida and other parts of the South. Also, approximately 120 species of exotic trees have naturalized in Puerto Rico.

Our champion tree register was undertaken by personnel from the International Institute of Tropical Forestry to help increase appreciation for trees among a very urban population. Champion trees are measured and judged according to AMERICAN FORESTS’ rules, just as in the mainland U.S. The International Institute of Tropical Forestry is maintained by the USDA Forest Service at Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. The Institute’s missions include research, cooperating with conservation organizations and forestry, departments in foreign countries, and assisting the Caribbean National Forest.

Although Puerto Rico’s champs tend to be relatively young and smaller than they might have been had our island remained a wilderness, one – the giant cotton silk tree or ceiba of Villalba – ranks ahead of all but two U.S. champs in total points. It measures 780 inches in [TABULAR DATA OMITTED] circumference and is 128 feet tall with an average crown width of 146 feet, a total score of 944 points. The tallest tree known in here today is a 141-foot casuarina (a taller one recently blew down in a hurricane).

Eight of Puerto Rico’s champion trees exceeded (in total points) U.S. national champion trees for 1996 (see chart).

Perhaps because so few people in Puerto Rico can identify trees by name, participation in the program has been limited largely to foresters. Assembling the registry has been great fun (156 species are currently represented). We hope that through the big-tree registry, more people will realize what truly magnificent trees Puerto Rico has to offer.


Since 1940 American Forests has promoted the country’s distinctive trees with its National Register of Big Trees. Or has it? Puerto Rico’s new big-tree program, described in the accompanying article, points out a glaring omission: In addition to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, the National Register leaves out the trees of Hawaii, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Territory of Guam, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and American Samoa.

The total land area of those U.S. Caribbean and Pacific islands, including Hawaii, is barely bigger than Maryland, but they are hotbeds for the evolution of endemic species. Unfortunately, the modern human pressures of urban and agricultural development, and especially the introduction of exotic species, have also made them hotspots for endangered species. Some island trees are so rare you can count their entire population with your fingers.

Only one other attempt has been made to recognize offshore champs. In the 1960s, retired Hawaii state forester Colonel Bill Bryan almost single-handedly started a big tree list for Hawaii, published by AMERICAN FORESTS in 1969 and 1974. The 1974 list included 46 native and 161 exotic species. The islands may be small, but that says nothing about the size of their trees. For native species, the biggest champion in 1974 was the koa with a height of 140 feet, a circumference over 37 feet, and a total of 620 points, which would rank it at #13 among mainland champion trees. On Kauai, only 10 hau kuahiwi trees are left. In the moist limestone forests in Puerto Rico, the palo de Ramon was down to just two trees in 1986. Hawaii alone has 31 trees on the endangered species list. Since 1974, however, big-tree hunting and recordkeeping in Hawaii has languished.

Traditionally, trees of the Pacific and Caribbean islands have not been included in the National Register because very few are found on the mainland. (Big Tree eligibility is determined by Checklist of United States Trees (Native and Naturalized) by Elbert L. Little Jr.). Also, the workload required to maintain records of 857 species, and hundreds of nominations annually already taxes the program’s budget. To rectify this situation in the Pacific, John Lawrence, the urban and community forestry program coordinator for Guam, and Catherine Moncrieff, who has the same position for the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, have decided to start their own Pacific Region Big Tree Register. Their ulterior motive is to promote forest preservation on their ecologically vulnerable and (especially when it comes to funding and material support) mostly forgotten islands. Lawrence is now working on a brochure and letter campaign to spread the word to all U.S. Pacific islanders to start measuring their trees.

AMERICAN FORESTS has offered to feature the Pacific Register in the next National Register in 1998. There is some question as to which species should be included. The National Register includes naturalized species, but the argument could be made that for islands, where exotic flora and fauna constitute the most devastating ecological threat, only native species should be highlighted with a Big Tree list.

As for you continental big-tree hunters, maybe it’s time for a little vacation to a tropical island where virgin big-tree territory awaits.


John Francis is a research forester and Salvador Alemany is a botanist at the International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.

COPYRIGHT 1996 American Forests

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