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A Story from the Florida Plant Kingdom
by Jim Notestein

In 1945, the American Forestry Association, (hyperlink) ( in an effort to locate and protect our nation's largest trees, published the first list of National Champion Trees.

Currently, there are over 600 species on this register. Florida, with 102 title holders, has the most champion trees. Twenty-four of these are located in North Central Florida.

Each state has its own registry of State Champion Trees. (hyperlink) In 1997, Daniel B. Ward and Robert T. Ing co-authored “Big Trees – The Florida Register.” On the cover is pictured the Florida Champion Live Oak – Quercus virginiana. Twenty people holding outstretched hands are still short of equaling this great tree's canopy reach. The 223 page book was sponsored by the Division of Forestry – Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (web address hyperlink). The Department of Botany (web address hyperlink) – University of Florida also participated. The University of Florida has more tree species on its campus than any other university campus in America. (hyperlink to the Noel Lake list) The book was published by the Florida Native Plant Society (web address hyperlink). If you would like to purchase this book, click here (hyperlink to Great Outdoors Publishing Company – St. Petersburg, Florida.

I live in Alachua county – “Florida's first county for more than alphabetical reasons.” Alachua county has more Champion Trees than any other county in America. There are about 3,000 counties in America.

The National Champion Southern Red Cedar – Juniperus silicicola grows near the town of Archer, (web address hyperlink) a town in western Alachua county. This natural wonder is over sixteen feet in circumference and over seventy-five feet tall. It's botanical name indicates it's not actually a cedar but a member of the juniper family. With aromatic wood – repellent to insects – it has long been used for building linen chests and lining closets of the well-to-do. The wood is soft and works easily. Most of Florida's cedars were felled one-hundred years ago by the Faber Company to be made into pencils.

Local lore maintains this tree marks a buried treasure. The survivors of a ship that had been driven ashore and sunk at Cedar Key attempted to cross the peninsula to settlements along the St. Johns River, but stopped to bury their valuables atop a prominent hill and marked the spot by planting this tree. They never returned.

Another Southern Red Cedar in Alachua county is actually greater in circumference – over seventeen feet. It is not the Champion because of other measurements. So, dear reader, you ask, “How is the Champion status of a tree determined?”

Briefly, the total point score of a Champion Tree is determined by its height in feet, plus its circumference in inches, plus one-quarter of the average crown spread in feet. The tree with the greatest total score number is the Champion.

Once a Champion is superseded it becomes an Emeritus Champion. If a tree's total score number is just less than the reigning Champion, it is called a Challenger. In the uncommon but possible circumstance that two trees of the same species have the same total score number, they are termed Co-Champions.

These various titles of superlative trees are granted to national as well as various state's categories. So, there are many categories and many possible champions. Old age, storms, commercial harvesting, and development have taken out many if not all of the truly gigantic trees in America. Some trees were so large that they could not be moved if felled and were therefore spared. Most large trees seen today are the third or fourth cycle of growback that has occurred since the organized tree removal that began almost immediately after each new part of America was opened up to colonization and settlement.

The record holding Loblolly Bay – Gordonia lasianthus, is over ninety-five feet tall and lives in Ocala National Forest. (hyperlink web address) These glossy evergreens bloom in spring with fragrant white blooms. This tree is the arboristic icon of Kanapaha Botanical Gardens (hyperlink web address).

Also in Ocala National Forest, standing forty-five feet high, lives the nation's largest Chapman Oak – Quercus chapmanii. This oak is usually a large bushy shrub. There are fifty-five species of oak registered nationally and all but English Oak are U.S natives.

The National Champion Sand Live Oak – Quercus geminata, is found in Gainesville. The National Co-Champion Sand Live Oak is also found just a few blocks away from its slightly larger companion. Foresters believe both of these are survivors of the now-vanished Longleaf Pine – Pinus palustris / Turkey Oak -- Quercus laevis association once prevalent in this area.

Hawthorne trees – also called Haw, are ornamental with showy blossoms and clusters of orange or red fruit. When planted in hedgerows, they form an impenetrable barrier. The wood is hard and heavy. It's said that the Irish “shillelaghs” were made from Black Hawthorne.The National Champion Summer Haw or Yellow Haw – Crataegus michauxii, is found on the University of Florida / Gainesville campus. In 1983, a larger specimen in another part of Florida became the National Champion. However, its recent death returns the championship status to the University of Florida tree.

On a disturbing note, the National Champion One-flowered Haw – Crataegus uniflora was recently and inadvertently removed to create a bus stop on the University of Florida campus. Sadly, other Champions have been lost because there are few commemorative plaques at the bases of Champion Trees. So, as development proceeds, we continue to loose natural wonders of the tree world. If you would like to contribute to the fund for Champion Tree recognition plaques, click here.

The National Champion Florida Soapberry – Sapindus marginatus, is located at Paynes Prairie State Preserve (hyperlink web address) in south Gainesville. The pulp of their fruit, when crushed in water, develops a soap-like lather that actually cleans and was used by the native Americans and early European settlers.

Paynes Prairie State Preserve is also the home of the National Champion Flatwoods or Hog Plum – Prunus umbellata. Many variations of this tree produce small fruit that range from juicy and sweet to thin and tart. Many animals relish the fruit and old-timers made them into jelly.

Coordinators for the Registry of National and state Champion Trees are the county foresters. Their phone numbers are in the blue pages of your local directory. So, if you think you know of a tree that is especially large for its kind, contact your county forester. They can help confirm your discovery.

Champion Tree lists change constantly as people take a good look for the first time at trees in their area.

It's a sport for all seasons. A tape measure is the only special equipment needed. Discovering a Champion Tree can be a personal high. You too can be a Big Tree Hunter.

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