From the Director's Desk: Confessions of a Big Tree Hunter

By Fred Breglia, Executive Director

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.

Spring 2023

Volume 41 , Number 1

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