Standing Tall

This Co-Champion Southern Red Oak is at the home of Jim and Mary Pat Berry in Port Tobacco. The Berrys also have a County Champion American Sycamore on the same property.

Southern Maryland boasts its share of Champion Big Trees
Writer: Johnn Cave
 
Trees deserve a lot of credit. Inconspicuously, they aid many crucial functions within the local environment. Take a homeowner for example.
Say they buy a house and plant a tree in the backyard. Within a few years the tree has grown and has started taking pollutants out of the air around you. When it rains, the now large leaves and branches soak in the water and trap contaminants reducing the impact of water pollution. In the summer the tree’s thick canopy provides shade for you and your house, reducing the use of air conditioning and cooling down the surrounding area for plants and other animals.
By just planting a tree, you’ve impacted your habitat and your surrounding environment. You’ve done something great!
Starting in 1925, Maryland’s Big Tree Contest has been an effort to recognize certain individuals, and trees, for positively impacting their environment.
Fred Besley, who was the first Maryland state forester, started the contest in response to environmental degradation caused by logging and forest fires. After all, it wasn’t always the norm to consider planting trees a greater concern than cutting them down.
Before much of the 1900s most believed in a “superabundance” of trees, and, for many years that assertion hadn’t been challenged. However in Maryland, as the population grew steadily larger from Colonial times, the need for timber increased, incentivizing loggers to move from one untouched forest to another without the time or effort to replenish the depleted areas.
 

A White Oak on the grounds of All Saints Episcopal Church in Sunderland. It is a great example of the Maryland state tree. 

SAVE THE TREES
As the Maryland Department of Natural Resources put it: “By the turn of the century, much of Maryland’s forest resources were ravaged by fire and indiscriminate logging.”
By the time Besley was named the state forester in 1906 one of his initial priorities was to promote the retention of trees in Maryland. One of the first ways Besley did that was advocating for responsible forestry by identifying large trees in urban areas, and on properties and estates, and going out to measure them.
“He was kind of a one-man show,” says John Bennett, the current coordinator of the state’s all-volunteer Big Tree Program. “[Besley] went all over the state to see some really nice trees.”
In 1925, Besley had the idea to make these visitations a contest and open it up to the entire state.
“It really caught on,” Bennett says. “People were interested, anxious and supportive of the idea. The first contest was held in 1925 and there were over 400 trees nominated which was pretty good for those days with limited publicity.” After the contest, 155 different species of trees were identified, including the famous Wye Oak which was the largest White Oak in the U.S. until its demise in 2002.

 

A White Oak at Chapel Point State Park was added to the state’s Big Tree list in 2020. It hangs on the edge of a cliff along the Port Tobacco River.

TALE OF THE TAPE
Another notable thing to come out of the initial contest was the method for measuring trees. The method, developed by Besley, was to capture exactly how “big” a tree was among the various shapes and sizes. Trees are measured at three different points, circumference of the trunk or stem, crown spread and height of the tree and then added up for the total point score [Trunk Circumference (inches) + Height (feet) + 1 /4 Average Crown Spread (feet) = Total Points]. For asymmetrical trees, the average crown spread is taken for the measurement.
This method quickly became the standard for measuring trees and was used for another three contests off and on until 1940.
“In 1940, [Besley and the American Forestry Association] actually started the first nationwide big tree contest,” Bennett says. “As you can expect Maryland had a lot of trees that became national champions because Mr. Besley had about 15 years of identifying trees.”
Since then the competition has been ongoing, with each state having their own coordinator who collects measurements for trees and submits potential National Champions to the American Forests registry.
“There’s a lot of people that do [enjoy big trees],” Bennett says. “We have people that go around the state looking for these big trees. A lot of them are in state parks and people will camp and visit tree to tree.”
With all of this attention on big trees, from going out to find them, volunteering to measure them or just simply enjoying them, it seems as if Fred Besley succeeded in his goal of promoting the retention of trees here in Maryland. •


St. Mary’s College of Maryland boasts the second largest Hinoki Cypress in the state on its campus in St. Mary’s City.

BIG TREES BY THE NUMBERS
Currently, Maryland has at least 18 species of National Championship Trees.
There are a 177 Big Trees listed on the Maryland Big Tree Program website (mdbigtrees.info) from the tri-county area. Of those, 112 are County Champion Trees, and 18 are State Champion Trees – nine in Calvert, four in Charles and five in St. Mary’s. There are no National Champion Trees listed from the region.
Many of the trees sit on private property, but in Charles County, Chapel Point State Park is home to a notable American Sycamore, and Chapman State Park has a significant Cherrybark Oak.
In St. Mary’s, St. Mary’s College of Maryland has the second largest Hinoki Cypress in the state on its campus. Olde Breton Inn has a notable Cedar of Lebanon on its grounds. Two Sweetbay Magnolias on the list are on the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Also noteworthy are a Loblolly Pine, Willow Oak and Red Maple in Historic St. Mary’s City.
A visit to Waters Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Leonard will yield a chance to see a Champion Red Oak and a Hungarian Oak. Flag Ponds Nature Center has a Yellow Poplar and Loblolly Pine that are on the list. All Saints Episcopal Church in Sunderland is a lovely spot to see a few notable trees.
Details and pictures of the championship trees are available on the Big Tree website which contains a database of all of the thousands of the trees measured in Maryland.
–Angela Mattingly Breck