August 12, 2015

Arkansas Giants: Champion Trees

Giants live among us. Arkansas Giants. From the Loblolly Pine to the Possum Haw, the Arkansas Forestry Commission maintains a list of champion trees, the titans of their species. So what makes a champion tree? Size. The official valuation system includes a “bigness index” determined by measurement—trunk circumference, tree height and average crown spread.

Known for its natural, scenic beauty, Arkansas currently has 123 champion trees, plus pending nominations. With more than 2.9 million acres included within three national forests (Ozark, Ouachita and St. Francis), is it any wonder? Arkansas has a vast amount of area for trees to breathe and grow.

Ozark National Forest, Arkansas

I’ve always had a thing for trees, and now that I know about this list, I’ve become a little obsessed with seeing these special trees for myself. Think about it. These champion trees have grown and survived for hundreds of years, avoiding lightning strikes and commercial development and forest blight. Arkansas Giants deserve to be recognized and celebrated.

The first champion tree I visited was practically in my own backyard in the Confederate Cemetery in Fayetteville (Washington County). This sugar maple, the largest in the state, measures 97 inches in circumference with a bigness index of 218. She is glorious to behold, and I plan to return in the fall when she is dressed in brilliant colors.

Sugar Maple, Washington County, Arkansas Champion

A week or so later as my son and I traveled across the state, we set out to find a few more champions. (Stick with me son and we shall have adventures…)

Yell County boasts seven champion trees! Here’s a shot of the northern catalpa champion tree in Dardanelle. This particular tree’s bigness index is 352.5 and was quite spectacular when we came upon it.

Northern Catalpa, Yell County, Arkansas Champion

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A few hours later in Monroe County, we searched for the largest fig tree in the state. Although I wasn’t that excited about seeing a fig tree—with a bigness index of 69, just how big could a fig tree be?—when we found it, I was nearly speechless. Truly.

Fig, Monroe County, Arkansas Champion

The last tree on my search so far (because I intend to continue visiting these trees) was in Mississippi County (my home county) on a dirt road I know like the freckles on my nose. Why? Because I practically grew up on this dirt road.

American Elm, Mississippi County, Arkansas Champion

My cousin owns this American elm. When I think back on all the time I spent bike riding on that road and playing in the surrounding fields, I can’t believe I was growing up alongside such greatness, the largest American elm in the state.

A few additional “good to know” facts and tips about these Arkansas Giants:

  1. Although the list of champion trees includes owner and address, many of these trees are difficult or impossible to find without assistance from the forestry commission. When the address is simply “Ozark National Forest,” well that’s a little vague. Other trees are located on private property. Ask before wandering around in someone’s backyard.
  2. Although most trees are unmarked, it doesn’t matter. When you come upon a champion tree, you’ll know it. It will be seriously awe-inspiring.
  3. Linda Williams Palmer, Arkansan and Hot Springs artist, has created an entire collection of artwork surrounding these champion trees. Visit her website at lindawilliamspalmer.com.
  4. The largest tree, the goliath of all the Arkansas Giants, is a Bald Cypress found in Arkansas County with a bigness index of 638! This tree is located in the White River National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest remaining bottomland hardwood forests in the Mississippi River Valley. Click HERE to watch an excerpt of an award-winning video, which includes footage of this unbelievable tree.
  5. Anyone can nominate a tree. If you believe you have the largest tree of a particular species, contact the Arkansas Forestry Commission for an official measurement.

Now I leave you with the age-old question… if you could return as an Arkansas tree in your next life, which tree would it be?

Talya Tate Boerner

Arkansas Women Bloggers member member Talya Tate Boerner is a delta girl who grew up making mudpies on her family’s cotton farm in Northeast Arkansas. After thirty years in Texas, she has returned to the state she loves, settling in Northwest Arkansas. Talya draws inspiration from nature and appreciates the history behind food, family, places and objects. She blogs at Grace, Grits and Gardening and has been published in Arkansas Review, Front Porch and several on-line publications. Talya believes most any dish can be improved with a side of collard greens. Her debut novel, The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee, is available at Barnes & Noble, via Amazon, and at certain indie bookstores.

View Talya's website