My love of big trees began when I was a five-year-old. My mother spoke about a gigantic oak that overlooked Beard’s Hollow in Richmondville. While the surrounding area had been cleared several times over many years, this lone tree somehow managed to survive. When I was finally able to hike to this ancient relic it made a profound — and lasting – impression on me. It might have been this tree that played some role in my decision to pursue environmental studies, become a certified arborist, and dedicate my professional life to the George Landis Arboretum.
I have been hunting big trees for over 25 years, and have found many state and national champions. Family vacations, work, travel, hiking, and fishing trips have become a way to keep an eye out for potential champion trees. Big trees are scored on a point system, developed by the American Forests National Big Tree Registry in the 1940s. The total points are calculated by adding the circumference of the tree in inches at 4 ½ feet up from the root flare, plus the height of the tree in feet, plus ¼ of the average crown spread in feet. This formula has enabled tree hunters to compare trees with different proportions.
There are only a handful of species in New York State that are genetically capable of qualifying as an overall biggest tree. Tulip trees, sycamores, cottonwoods, oaks, and willows all have that potential. For the past several years, I have focused on looking for big eastern cottonwoods (Populus deltoides). I narrowed my search to creeks, rivers, and floodplains, since these trees flourish in moist, well drained bottomland soils. I found several large specimens along the Mohawk River and a number of others along the Schoharie Creek. On a fishing trip last year, I discovered a particularly large cottonwood along the Hudson River in Albany County. It is a monster of a tree with a trunk measuring over 27 feet in circumference and over 110 feet tall. Cottonwood trees are dioecious, having separate male and female trees. Typically, the largest trees tend to be female. This giant is a male specimen and does not produce the fluffy cotton seeds that most people associate with cottonwoods. It’s likely the largest male cottonwood tree in New York State.
I had a few other trees on my list of big trees to be measured before the end of the year. One of them was another cottonwood in Schaghticoke, reportedly broken apart, that had been mentioned in an old archival newspaper. I posted it in a group called Big Tree Seekers that I established on Facebook to see if anybody knew if the tree was still standing. I confirmed it was still upright and took a trip to get some measurements. I spotted the tree at a distance along the floodplain. When I finished wrapping my circumference tape around the trunk, it was clear that the tree was another undisputed winner. This eastern cottonwood in Schaghticoke is currently New York State’s largest documented single stem tree, regardless of species. The tree measures 33 feet 9 ¼ inches in circumference and stands 108 feet tall. It has an average canopy spread of over 100 feet. It scores 539 “big tree points.” It is not only a serious contender for biggest eastern cottonwood in the United State, but possibly also in the world.
Would you like to try your hand at big tree hunting? Landis is inviting you to join our Big Tree Search by looking for a tree that is even bigger than this current champion. We are also looking for species champions, each the largest of their kind in New York State. Remember that a champion apple tree, for example, will be much smaller than a champion white oak. Some suggested places to get started looking are cemeteries, parks, historic sites, hedgerows, bottomlands, waterways and old-growth forests. Also check old newspaper articles, and maps. Search using Google Earth.
Landis will be awarding prizes to all winners. Visit the BIG Tree Search page on the Landis Arboretum website for details. Special thanks to Arboretum members Bill and Roberta Winsman for their sponsorship of the 2023 big tree search.
Ever since coming face to face with that old oak in my childhood, I have enjoyed the thrill of the hunt and the rush of adrenaline when a new discovery is made. But the main reason why I am committed to the search is to create more awareness of our biggest trees and oldest forests and their importance in our environment. Big trees, once common before urbanization, agriculture, and deforestation, are now hard to find. Let’s locate these significant trees to protect and preserve them, saving the past to enrich the future.
I’ve been back to that old oak near my childhood home many times, sometimes with friends and family. We are all moved by the experience, as perhaps you will be too when you find your big tree.