Virginia is a state with lots of champion trees and a big advantage; it’s home to the two most famous big tree hunters in the country. They form a tag team, looking for large trees that may outrank other large trees. Gary Williamson is a retired park ranger from Chesapeake, Virginia. He is responsible for 175 list worthy trees, with more than 45 national champions or the biggest of their kind in the entire United States. Byron Carmean is from Suffolk, Virginia, a retired teacher of horticulture and forestry. He’s been hunting trees since 1983 and has located 45 to 50 state champions. These numbers fluctuate, limbs fall, trees die, numbers change. 

Their contributions to the big tree program may be a significant part of Virginia’s ranking, fourth place out of the top five. Florida has over 100 national champs, Arizona and Texas follow. California comes in fifth and Washington State sixth. The point system for calculating big trees began in 1940 with the American Forestry Association. Today you can do an internet search for Virginia big trees and then search their database, finding the largest in the state with a location, phone number of owners, and even a photograph. So incredible is the Virginia big tree network that you can nominate a tree, report the death of a champion or even re-certify an existing winner. 

The point system for measuring champs is the total of three things; the trunk in inches, measured at four and a half feet up, the height in feet, and the average canopy spread in feet, divided by four. Most older trees gain in girth and may outnumber another champion trees in a matter of two years. For that reason, the list is updated every second year. If a registered tree is not measured and recorded in ten years, it is automatically dropped. Sadly urbanization claims big trees, potential champions, on a daily basis. Extreme weather and old age are always a threat to their status.

My interest in the process came after meeting a significant specimen in Warrenton, Virginia.  Dominion Power had contacted the forestry department, so impressive was alone hackberry tree or Celtis occidentalis in a farm field, near a power line installation. From what I understand, it is being nominated, the measurement around the trunk is 216”! 

Folks that seek out big trees, and there are many, walk up to these specimens and touch their trunk, it’s a requirement. So humbled and impressed was my experience with this hackberry that I may become a big tree junkie. 

Virginia is certainly a good place to start.

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