A few months ago, I happened upon an enormous cucumbertree magnolia. “Must be the biggest cucumbertree magnolia anywhere,” I thought.
Such speculation doesn't have to be idle. In a Washington, D.C., office, the American Forests organization keeps the National Register of Big Trees (www.americanforests.org).
The Big Tree program was begun in 1940 as America faced impending war and its attendant need for resources, including wood. The first giant to be earmarked and saved from the threat of a saw was Maryland's Wye Oak, an estimated 450 years old and, up to its death, the champion white oak.
Since 1940, more than 800 Big Trees have been named. Almost every state has at least one, with the most in Florida and then California. Those states are home to some species found only there.
Not all Big Trees are necessarily big. Each is merely the biggest of its species.
The smallest Big Tree is in Texas, a Reverchon hawthorn in Dallas which “soars” to 9 feet tall and around whose trunk you could wrap your hands.
You can probably guess which is the biggest Big Tree: The General Sherman sequoia in California, its upper leaves, at 275 feet, tickling clouds, and its girth, at 998 inches, wide enough to accommodate a two lane road.
Somewhat unsettling, given its weedy nature, is the image of the largest staghorn sumac at 61 feet high.
It's fun to imagine what was going on when the sequoia or western juniper champions were still in their relative youth a thousand or so years ago.
A few Big Trees have been more than mere witnesses; they have been part of history. The champion Osage orange tree, still standing at the Patrick Henry homestead, was grown from a seed sent by Lewis and Clark to Thomas Jefferson, then presented to Henry's daughter.
I will now surely pause for thought before planting out my 5-year-old Osage orange seedlings this spring.