Arkansas’ champion trees are the biggest of their kind within the state. Each species has a champion. The Arkansas Forestry Commission keeps score, posting the current champions on its website and maintaining a list of runners up, close competitors that can gain the title if the current monarch falls or passes on to the Elysian forests.
Champion trees are determined quantitatively by the American Forests “Bigness Index.” To calculate BI, you add together the circumference of the trunk at breast height (4.5 ft from the ground) in inches, the height of the tree in feet, and ¼ of the average crown spread in feet.
For example, Arkansas’ champion persimmon measures 96 feet high, with a crown spread of 73 feet and a circumference of 151 inches (which means the diameter of the trunk at breast height is slightly more than 4 feet!). BI = 265. The tree resides in Dardanelle, at 1047 N. Front Street. During the fall meeting of ANPS in Russellville, a group of us, led by Mike and Peggy Burns, took the Dardanelle Trees of Distinction walk down Front Street on Saturday afternoon.
Dardanelle has an unusually high number of Arkansas champion trees. Right next door to the persimmon, grows the state champion black hickory, and in Council Oaks Park, also on Front Street, we saw the state champion white oak, the most spectacular specimen of (in my opinion) the Southeast’s most splendid and companionable kind of tree. The park is perched on the first terrace above the Arkansas River, commanding a broad view of the river valley. Partway down the embankment was one of two state champion cottonwoods, standing 144 feet tall, with a diameter of just under 7 feet. Downhill at a distance, the tree did not strike us as being especially gigantic, until Mike Burns (6 ft 4, 200 lbs) walked down the slope and stood against the trunk: the tree seemed to swallow him. Our last stop was a visit to the largest northern catalpa in the state, incongruously thriving in a church parking lot. We missed seeing Arkansas’ largest southern red oak which, according to the Dardanelle EAST Lab student brochure “The Trees of Distinction” that Peggy distributed, stands 6 feet in diameter and 100 feet high.
The Dardanelle persimmon is not only the state champion but the national champion as well, the largest persimmon tree in the United States. The national list is maintained by American Forests, the oldest national nonprofit conservation organization in the country, according to their website, and an energetic and effective advocate for the protection and expansion of America’s forests. I learned on their website that Arkansas (Ashley County) is also the home of the national champion shortleaf pine that stands 3 feet in diameter and 136 feet tall. The fellow standing in front of the tree, in the website photo, is Jim Gulden of the U. S. Forest Service, a past-president of the Arkansas Native Plant Society.
The fable of the lion and the mouse assures us that bigger isn’t necessarily better. On the other hand, when it comes to trees, in this cutover world, bigger sure is refreshingly different.
Big trees educate us about what a tough, durable, living organism can achieve. Structurally they astonish us. Our state champion persimmon is so big, that to find its familiar black, blocky bark, you have to look up the trunk some 30 feet. And bigger usually means older, so the giants humble us not just by their size but by their age. They’ve had the stamina to hold this spot of ground for many generations, and the summer of 2012 was certainly not the first hellish summer they endured. A plaque in Council Oaks Park informs us that under the great white oak, in the 1880s, Governor Robert Crittenden and Black Fox of the Cherokee nation signed the peace treaty that ceded the land south of the Arkansas River to the United States.
Without our grandest trees, we would know North America’s bygone forests largely from written descriptions. Champion trees help us realize the scope and scale of those forests. And a few of them are in fact the living representatives of that lost world. The enormous, storm-battered baldcypress trees along the Little Maumelle River at Pinnacle Mountain State Park are thought, based on core sampling, to be as much as 500 to 600 years old.
According to the Arkansas Vascular Flora Committee’s Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Arkansas, the earliest treatise on Arkansas trees is Francis Leroy Harvey’s 1883 article in the American Journal of Forestry, “The Forest Trees of Arkansas.” (An inexpensive reprint is available from Amazon Used Books.) From the behemoths to the near shrubs, Harvey cites some impressive measurements taken from the representatives of his 19th century forest: northern red oak to 8 ft diameter; chinkapin oak to 4 ft diameter; red mulberry to 4 ft diameter; western soapberry, wild [Mexican] plum, and winged sumac to 1 ft diameter; pasture haw, Crataegus spathulata [“coral berry”] to 20 inches; pawpaw to 15 inches; [Carolina] buckthorn and possum haw to 8 inches.
William Bartram explored the Southeast even earlier, in the late 18th century, before the felling of much of temperate North America’s deciduous forest primeval. From the Library of America’s 1996 edition of his Travels, here are three passages drawn from three different southern states:
At an Indian village in Florida, a crew of “adventurers” had just returned from an expedition in their baldcypress canoes: “These Indians have large handsome canoes which they form out of the trunks of Cypress trees…, some of them commodious enough to accommodate twenty or thirty warriors. In these large canoes they descend the river on trading and hunting expeditions to the sea coast…quite to the point of Florida, and sometimes cross the gulph, extending their navigations to the Bahama Islands and even to Cuba…” (p. 195)
In Alabama, on the Tombigbee River north of Mobile, switchcane of “an astonishing magnitude”: “…as a proof of the extraordinary fertility of the soil, the reeds or canes…grow here thirty or forty feet high, and as thick as a man’s arm, or three or four inches in diameter; I suppose one joint of some of them would contain above a quart of water…” (p. 333)
In Georgia, on a terrace of Little River, “…the most magnificent forest I had ever seen.”: “To keep within the bounds of truth and reality, in describing the magnitude and grandeur of these trees, would, I fear, fail of credibility; yet, I think I can assert, that many of the black oaks measured eight, nine, ten, and eleven feet diameter five feet above the ground, as we measured several that were above thirty feet girt, and from hence they ascend perfectly straight, with a gradual taper, forty or fifty feet to the limbs…the tulip tree, liquidambar, and beech were equally stately.” (p.55)
So, are you feeling puny? Is 21st century technology running you ragged? The tonic of some profound natural history can help! I’m a doctor, and I prescribe a visit to an Arkansas champion tree. Check the Forestry Commission’s website for a champion near you. Or if Great Smoky Mountains National Park isn’t on your calendar, take the Kingfisher Trail loop at Pinnacle Mountain State Park next time you’re in the capital city, and admire the ancient baldcypresses as well as the sycamores, sweetgums, bitternuts, and river birches, the cherrybark, Shumard, and water oaks, and the hornbeams and pawpaws. Their testimony confirms that there were indeed giants in the earth in those days! Or as William Bartram celebrates it, “This ancient sublime forest…agreeably employs the imagination, and captivates the senses by scenes of magnificence and grandeur.”
by Eric Sundell
Editor’s note: Eric Sundell is the president of the Arkansas Native Plant Society. Before retiring, he taught botany at the University of Arkansas Monticello, where his students rated his class as being difficult, but informative. Many of us in ANPS love to go on Eric’s field trips, especially trips to the forest, where he prompts us to chew twigs and sniff bark and study leaf structure. In our small and lovely state, he is practically a botanical legend.