McKay big trees

The author and his grandson try to measure the circumference of a giant Tulip Tree.

One of the goals is to grow big trees. I mean really big trees, like a four-foot diameter white pine, sugar maple, or red oak. I want my grandchildren to experience such trees, try to wrap their arms around one, and wonder at the grandeur of such a plant.

When I started my turn managing the forest at our place in Peacham 40 years ago, it was a young forest, having grown up from abandoned agricultural land over the previous 30 to 60 years. There were several huge sugar maples, remnants of a long-forgotten sugar bush. They stand among pits and mounds in the soil on an eastern slope, evidence perhaps that their mates were blown down in the Hurricane of 1938. One I measured was 54 inches in diameter. It is impossible to easily measure the age of big old maples because by the time they fall most of the interior has rotted away, leaving only the outer rings to count. I think it is safe to say that those trees were more than 150 years old, maybe older, and could have been youngsters when the first settlers started wielding their axes.

Other than those big maples, the biggest trees were white pines, multi-trunked with big branches indicative of pines that grew up in an old pasture with lots of sun. These trees were easy pickings for the White Pine Weevil, a pervasive insect that kills and causes them to have multiple trunks. Some of those pines were three feet in diameter. Pines grow much faster than sugar maples, and in the open can grow a half-inch or more in diameter each year, slowing that pace as they age. Our big pine trees probably got started early to mid 20th century, growing in a steep, south-facing pasture, perhaps left to grow to provide shade for the cows.

“Forest Trees of Vermont,” by Trevor Evans, has a fun feature, listing Vermont’s Largest Tree for each species. Cataloguing these big trees is an ongoing project, started in 1972 by Jeff Freeman at Castleton State College. They started with just the 27 largest species in Vermont, but over the years the list has expanded to include 91 species. Jeff continued the project until 2008 when he turned it over to the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation (VDFPR). Since 1990, the methodology has followed the American Forests system, measuring circumference, height, and crown spread to determine an overall score. The circumference is measured rather than diameter because it is more consistent due to the irregular shape of tree trunks.

Google “Vermont big trees” and you’ll find a VDFPR web page devoted to the subject with a handy calculator to play with. Imagine our 54-inch diameter sugar maple when it was still healthy with plenty of growing space. Multiply 54 times pi (3.14) and you get a circumference of 170 inches. Our old sugar maples are about 70 feet tall and I’d guess the spread was about 60 feet. I plugged those numbers into the calculator and got a score of 255 points. That’s a big tree, but the record in Vermont is 336 points, belonging to a tree in Windham County. The national champion Sugar Maple is a tree in New London, Conn., with 364 points. Look for the American Forests National Register of Champion Trees online and you can look up all the champions across the country.

I notice that the large majority of the biggest trees in Vermont are in southern counties. That could be because there have been a few people in southern Vermont who go after big trees. But it could also be a reflection of growing conditions and logging history. Trees grow bigger on good sites with longer growing seasons and less winter injury and each species have a sweet zone where it shines. I think of Black Cherry, which in northern Vermont is often a pretty scraggly tree and rarely attains a diameter more than 18 inches. But go south and west a little, to the southern tier of New York and into Pennsylvania and Ohio, and Black Cherry grows tall and straight and big. The champion Black Cherry of Vermont is in Bennington County with a diameter of 56 inches, 72 feet tall. In New York, the champion is in Wyoming County, southeast of Buffalo, and has a diameter of 71 inches!

There is one major caveat to these champion tree lists. Very few of the champions are found in forests. Many are street or yard trees where they have ample space to expand in all directions. If you want to look only at tree height, has a good search opportunity, although many states, including Vermont, do not have reliable lists by just height. In New York, the tallest tree is a 162 foot tall Tulip Tree in Cattaraugus County, also in western New York. No matter their limitations, these lists are fun to peruse.

When we visit our daughter and family in Westchester County, New York, we always go for walks in the many preserves that have been set aside over the decades. I am often struck by the size of the trees. What we would consider massive hardwoods are everywhere. The effect is accentuated by the park-like feel of forests that have too many deer and very little disturbance. I don’t think I’ve ever tromped around an area with so much ledge and so little soil, and yet the trees grow very big. It’s a considerably milder climate than ours, and probably gets more of the sun’s energy, but the hows and whys of tree growth are still more mysterious than we like to admit. That’s just fine with me.

So as the leaves unfurl this spring, go find a big tree, sit down for a while, look around, and wonder at all the weather and disturbance that have howled around it, and all the people who have walked by or even sat where you are sitting, perhaps 100 years ago. These huge plants are true wonders of creation.

Tim McKay is a retired natural resource conservationist and current woodworker and tree farmer who lives in Peacham.