Northwood News ♦ February 2017

Maryland Keeps Track of All of Its ‘Big Trees’

By Jacquie Bokow

Maryland’s first State Forester, Fred Besley, compiled the initial “Noted Tree List” in 1925.  As the list grew into a permanent, published record, Besley started an intensive search for big trees of all species growing in Maryland.  A statewide contest was held, greatly increasing the number of nominations for Big Tree Champions.  The search continues to the present time and the list changes constantly.

Although “The Big Tree Champions of Maryland” was published from 1937 to 2002, it is now compiled electronically and updated as a new champion or new species is identified.  You can search the list yourself online at www.mdbigtrees.com.  There are currently 1,531 trees in the registry for Montgomery County.


How the Crown Spread is calculated.

Due to the size of the database, limits have been established as to the size of trees that can be registered.  There are three criteria:

  1. trees must be at least 300 points, or
  2. trees must be at least 70 percent of the current State Champion (largest of that species in the state), or
  3. trees must be a county champion (largest in the county).

To evaluate the relative size of a tree, the girth (circumference) in inches and the height and crown spread in feet are added together to arrive at a number of points for each tree.  This number is then used for comparison of tree sizes in each species.  This system of measuring gives the trunk much better weight by giving the girth in inches.  The formula is:
Total Points = Circumference (inches) + Height (feet) + 25% of the Average Crown Spread (feet, see diagram above).

I’d never heard of Maryland’s Big Tree Program until one of my sisters had a tree of hers registered.  She lives in Prince George’s County and her Northern Pecan (see photo below) has 263 points.


My sister’s northern pecan tree (Carya illinoensis), with a height of 92 feet, a spread of 89 feet, and a circumference of 149 inches, has 263 points.  She lives in a 105-year-old house in Fort Washington, in Prince George’s County, Maryland.  [Photo by Caryn Cochran]

Joli McCathran, Montgomery County Big Tree Coordinator, measured all of the large trees in North Four Corners Park and two trees there have been added to the Maryland Big Tree database (only the largest known ones appear on the online list).  First, of course, is the black walnut (Juglans nigra, 255 points) overhanging the new soccer field.  But she was even more excited to find an “impressive” oak chestnut (Quercus montana, 257 points) near the rec center.

“The chestnut oak is the highest-pointing tree in the park,” said McCathran.  “It is located behind the building parking lot in the east corner of the property.  There are two others [chestnut oaks] in Montgomery County which have more points.  The state champion (in Anne Arundel County) is 406 points.”

No Reward Except Fame

The registration of a big tree confers no protection or restriction upon the property and its owner.  There are no funds available to prune, mulch, cable, and otherwise promote the healthy growth and longevity of Maryland Big Trees.

On the other hand, the owner of a registered Big Tree retains all property rights of that tree, including the right to remove it at any time for any reason.  Once a tree is measured and registered, it is assigned a number which it will carry forever (deceased trees retain their registered number and are listed in an electronic “deceased” file).  The owner is mailed a certificate of registration, a letter of congratulations, a list of all the registered trees in Maryland of that species, a county-specific brochure explaining the program, and a bumper sticker proclaiming “Proud Owner of a Maryland Big Tree.”


North Four Corner Park’s chestnut oak tree (Quercus montana, 257 points) near the rec center, surrounded by invasive plant material — English and poison ivy — is the tallest chestnut oak registered in Maryland.  Pictured is Joe Howard, part of the team doing the official measurement, who was principal for many years of Four Corners Elementary School, which used to exist in our neighborhood where The Oaks is now situated.  [Photo by Joli McCathran]

The rules for measuring trees have evolved over the years.  Volunteers from the Maryland Big Tree Program and local forestry board members are trained to follow these rules; therefore, they recommend allowing their volunteers to perform the tree measurements.  They also require written permission from the tree’s owner in order to measure and register a tree.  Citizens are encouraged to nominate trees in their communities.  They must be given the owner’s name and contact information before they can drive to a location to measure as they will not investigate the ownership of a property.  Trees on public property usually can be measured and registered without written permission, although it is helpful to first check with the public agency in case the property is slated for a project that would affect that tree.

Only trees native to the U.S. are counted in the registry and the trees are re-measured every 10 years once they are registered.  “Bicentennial Trees” are those identified as being alive in 1776.

Since the death of Talbot County’s Wye Oak in 2002 (still the largest tree ever measured in Maryland), the largest tree is the state is in Montgomery County:  an American Sycamore (Platanus Occidentalis) in Dickerson Conservation Park.  It has 475 points.

“There are many reasons why the program started and continues to this day,” said John Bennett, Volunteer Coordinator for the Maryland Big Tree Program.  “First, it serves to reward those owners who care for their big trees.  About 90 percent of our registered trees are ‘backyard trees,’ as opposed to forest-grown trees.  Trees grown in backyards tend to have less competition and receive more nutrients and water from the owners (lawn fertilizers often benefit the trees more than the lawn).


The black walnut (Juglans nigra, 255 points) overhanging the new soccer field.  [Photo by Joli McCathran]

“Second, the program provides a reference for scientific studies.  From time to time, I am contacted by researchers who are studying a particular species and need to know where the big examples are located.  Third, the program provides a record over time of changes to species distribution.  Thirty years ago, one would not find examples of Southern magnolias and crape myrtles in northern Maryland; today they are very common.  The program helps to document these changes.  Finally, the program provides locations of rare and unusual species for those who wish to improve their knowledge and identification skills.”

The Montgomery County Forestry Board will be issuing the 2017-2018 Register of Champion Trees in April.  For information on how to register a big tree, contact John Bennett at mdbigtreeprogram@aol.com or call 410.287.5980.   ■


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