Sizing up the EAST

Sizing up the EAST

Whit Bronaugh


I suspect that when Mother Nature passed out the genes and growing conditions for size and longevity, she expressed an inordinate fondness for trees in the West, where all but one of the current 25 biggest national champion trees reside. Despite their impressive point totals, the East’s biggest trees have Long been over-shadowed by their mighty western peers. Remember, though, nowhere in the East does rainfall begin to approach that of the soggy Pacific Northwest. The only eastern areas that have mild winters and long growing seasons like the West Coast are in the South, where hurricanes, tornadoes, and other storms prevent most trees from reaching western proportions. And the East is home to less than half as many conifer species, which often have far greater longevity than most flowering trees. “Not fair!” we eastern big tree lovers say. So let’s level the playing field and see where the limelight falls on an “Eastern Register of Big Trees.”

The East’s biggest champ is a 748-point common baldcypress that resides in a second-growth floodplain forest along the lower Mississippi River in Louisiana. At 83 feet the tree’s height doesn’t strain the neck much, but it would take at least nine people, with arms outstretched, to hug its massive 53-foot girth. Purists may deride the flaring and fluted trunk, which inflates the tree’s point total, although the strange shape is probably why loggers have let it stand. And no matter how it is measured, it is still a gigantic, jaw-dropping presence that inspires visions of prehistoric forests.

I could easily imagine dinosaurs nibbling the delicate fernlike foliage or scratching their sides along the trunk.

The fact that the four previous common baldcypress champions all topped 600 points adds further support to its probable status as the East’s biggest species. If the contest were based on volume–a more appropriate but far more difficult attribute to measure–the King of the East still would be a baldcypress but the crown would belong to a tree near Longwood, Florida, known as the Sovereign Cypress. Robert Van Pelt, a big tree hunter best known for his many western nominations, has estimated this single-stemmed, 15-foot diameter colossus to be about 8,000 cubic feet. Allowing for trunk taper, a 3-foot diameter tree containing that much wood would have to be more than half a mile tall!

For the last quarter-century the East’s second-largest champion has been a sycamore in northern Ohio that weighs in at 737 points, more than 200 points bigger than the number three champ, a live oak. Although the sycamore is big, it’s less impressive than its numbers imply because it is a multi-stem tree that forks below breast height (4 1/2 feet). For that reason, AMERICAN FORESTS has recently dethroned the imposter and is encouraging new nominations.

Historical accounts suggest that sycamores may still rightfully claim title as the East’s second-largest species and largest hardwood. The previous sycamore champ, a Kentucky tree, attained a 39-foot girth and totaled 589 points before it died in 1982.

The granddaddy of them all may have been a Mt. Carmel, Illinois, sycamore that had a girth of 66 feet at the base, barely tapering to 62 feet at the 20-foot level. Pace out 21 feet and try to imagine a sycamore trunk taking up all that space, without shaking your head in disbelief. Even if this goliath only had a very average height of 100 feet and a crown spread of 80 feet, it would have scored at least 888 points!

Now second on our list, at 527 points, is the aforementioned live oak, which sprawls in majestic splendor just north of Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana. With its huge sheltering crown and big limbs that arc to the ground, it conjures up images of fairy tale forests. It made me feel six years old again, and I barely resisted the urge to scamper along its horizontal branches and chase after imaginary elves. Called the Seven Sisters for its seven trunks, it was judged by the Live Oak Society, as well as AMERICAN FORESTS, to be one tree, rather than seven different trees fused together. Still, some big tree enthusiasts consider it a multi-stem tree that has an unfair advantage over the normal growth form. Single stemmed live oaks are known to reach an impressive 25 feet in girth, but that falls far short of a number three ranking among eastern species.

Even if the live oak’s status as the second biggest eastern champ does not persist once the Seven Sisters Oak passes on, there is one category in which the live oak, at least on average, often reigns supreme. Many live oaks are two or three times wider, in crown spread, than they are tall, resulting in spreads that approach 150 feet. If it’s shade you want, especially throughout the year, you’re likely to find the most per tree under a live oak. The champion covers one-third of an acre, practically a forest by itself. It’s big enough to give a square yard of shade to each of 1,520 people.

Bedford, Virginia claims the third biggest eastern tree with a 516-point yellow-poplar, or tuliptree, whose 31-foot girth has helped it hold the crown since 1972. This monarch grows in a small woodland of skinny trees that emphasize its greatness. Like so many champion trees, it has a calming and reassuring effect that seems to say, “Sit with me a while and regain the natural rhythm of life.”

Serious big tree hunters feel the Bedford yellow-poplar, because it has several forks at the 8-to-12-foot level, lacks the characteristics that make the species a true contender for one of the biggest trees in the East. Giant yellow-poplars are remarkable for their lofty heights and barely tapering columnar shapes. This species may be the tallest and most voluminous hardwood in the East. There are reliable historical records of yellow-poplar heights to at least 190 feet and girths that surpass 30 feet. One massive specimen in the Craggy Mountains of North Carolina was more than 34 feet around, 150 feet tall, and 5,000 cubic feet in volume. Although there are no yellow-poplars that reach such dimensions today, some old-growth specimens in the Smoky Mountains have been measured to 177 feet in height and more than 24 feet in circumference.

Coming in at number four is the camphor-tree, a naturalized species from Asia. According to my field guide, camphor-trees grow to 40 feet tall and 2 feet in diameter. That barely qualifies as a branch on the champion camphor-tree in Darby, Florida. It tops out at 67 feet and has a monstrous girth of more than 35 feet. Most camphor-trees were grown for camphor oil until it began to be made artificially. The champ is now far more valuable for its protective shade, climbable branches, and inspiring size and beauty.

The fifth biggest tree in the east is the famous white oak at Wye Mills, Maryland. It nearly dwarfs the town itself with its huge symmetrical crown and buttressed base. At an estimated age of 450 years, it is probably one of the oldest deciduous trees in the East. It is also the only eastern champion left from the Class of 1940 when the National Register of Big Trees was created. In fact, after a chestnut oak in Connecticut, it was the second tree ever to be officially nominated for national champion status.

While the undisputed champ by girth and points is the common baldcypress, the top five do not necessarily come in at number one in individual statistics. In the top 25, the blue ribbon for crown spread belongs to a co-champion swamp chestnut oak in Tennessee, which measures an impressive 216 feet.

The crown for height is won easily by its co-champion in Alabama (200 feet), followed closely by the Shumard oak at 190 feet. (In previous Registers the title for tallest eastern tree belonged to the soaring eastern white pine. There are numerous early records of eastern white pines well over 200 feet tail, including one from Merideth, New York, that measured 247 feet after it had fallen.) If it had a larger circumference, the swamp chestnut oak might be a contender for the East’s top-scoring elite.

After the white oak the actual ranking of eastern champions becomes somewhat arbitrary because successive champs are often separated by only a few points. But no matter what the order, it’s clear that in the East, in contrast to the West, broadleaf trees rule. Nine of the top ten eastern champs are broadleaf, whereas nine of the top ten western champs are conifers. In fact, for the eastern list, after the common baldcypress at number one, the next biggest conifer is the alligator juniper at number 39. Of the 38 broadleaf trees in the eastern top 40, 17 are oaks.

The distribution of big trees is not yet an exact science but, in general, the greater photosynthetic efficiency of broadleaf trees allows them to grow faster than the conifers throughout most of the East. In the West, dry summers negate that advantage by slowing down and even stopping photosynthesis. This enables conifers to pull ahead in the other seasons with their evergreen leaves churning away while broadleaf trees are leafless. Conifers in the West and oaks in the East also get big because their resistance to disease and insects allows them to grow for many centuries.

Unfortunately, few ancient trees in the East have survived American Progress so it’s no wonder that most eastern trees seem like scrawny adolescents compared to the great champions of the West. Thankfully, some pockets of eastern old-growth yet remain where arboreal giants persist (see “In Search of Old-Growth Giants.” Register page 18). And as the National Register of Big Trees illustrates, the East can still boast a few giants that even a westerner could appreciate.

Photojournalist Whit Bronaugh recently relocated to Kentucky. where he can indulge his passion for eastern big trees.

The Biggest Champion Trees in the East



1. Common Baldcypress 644 83 85

2. Live Oak 439 55 132

3. Yellow-Poplar 374 111 125

4. Camphor-Tree (n) 422 67 103

5. White Oak 382 96 119

6. Southern Red Oak 312 150 156

7. Black Willow 400 76 92

8. Peachleaf Willow 417 58 82

9. Cherrybark Oak 324 124 136

Cherryhark Oak 342 110 108

10. White Willow (n) 301 133 142

White Willow (n) 316 118 131

11. Shumard Oak 249 190 88

12. Crack Willow (n) 310 116 131

Crack Willow (n) 305 122 124

13. Sycamore 334 95 105

14. Weeping Willow (n) 309 117 116

Weeping Willow (n) 344 86 93

15. Water Tupelo 336 105 56

16. Overcup Oak 258 156 120

17. Bur Oak 322 96 103

18. Florida Strangler Fig 360 63 72

19. Red Maple 276 141 88

20. Silver Maple 293 115 110

21. Swamp Chestnut Oak 276 105 216

Swamp Chestnut Oak 197 200 148

22. Black Oak 322 86 105

23. Sweetgum 278 136 66

24. American Beech 279 115 138

25. Water Oak 278 120 111


1. Common Baldcypress 748 Louisiana

2. Live Oak 527 Louisiana

3. Yellow-Poplar 516 Virginia

4. Camphor-Tree (n) 515 Florida

5. White Oak 508 Maryland

6. Southern Red Oak 501 Georgia

7. Black Willow 499 Michigan

8. Peachleaf Willow 496 Wisconsin

9. Cherrybark Oak 482 Virginia

Cherryhark Oak 479 Virginia

10. White Willow (n) 470 Michigan

White Willow (n) 467 Michigan

11. Shumard Oak 461 Tennessee

12. Crack Willow (n) 459 Michigan

Crack Willow (n) 458 Michigan

13. Sycamore 455 Virginia

14. Weeping Willow (n) 455 Michigan

Weeping Willow (n) 453 Michigan

15. Water Tupelo 455 Virginia

16. Overcup Oak 444 North Carolina

17. Bur Oak 444 Kentucky

18. Florida Strangler Fig 441 Florida

19. Red Maple 439 Tennessee

20. Silver Maple 436 Wisconsin

21. Swamp Chestnut Oak 435 Tennessee

Swamp Chestnut Oak 434 Alabama

22. Black Oak 434 Connecticut

23. Sweetgum 431 North Carolina

24. American Beech 429 Maryland

25. Water Oak 426 Louisiana


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