‘Addictive’ quest to find state’s biggest trees

By HADLEY BARNDOLLAR

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 09-03-2023 12:48 PM

In this competition, those sparring for the title are judged by their circumference. Some are scaly, furrowed, warty. Others are smooth and papery. 

One of John Wallace’s favorite prizewinners resides deep in Epping conservation land: the state champion black tupelo, or black gum. With a circumference of 137 inches and a height of 83 feet, it’s the largest of its kind in northern New England and likely nearing 400 years old. 

“It is just this beautiful tree,” Wallace said. “That’s a species I really like. The old bark is really sort of reptilian, like a dinosaur tree. And the top of the tree is always really funky. It doesn’t have a nice, even canopy. The branches are sticking out in all sorts of different directions.”

As part of the New Hampshire Big Trees Program, volunteers scour the state to find and measure the biggest examples of different species. The program crowns both statewide and county winners, feeding a larger network – a nonprofit called American Forests – that tracks state-level data to declare national champions. 

Over many decades, using a point system that accounts for estimated height, spread of branches, and circumference at 4½ feet off the ground, volunteers have identified the triumphant shagbark hickory, sweet birch, bigtooth aspen, Norway spruce, swamp white oak, and slippery elm, among hundreds of others that rank at the top of their species in New Hampshire.  

Pelham has the state’s largest weeping willow. In Sanbornville lives the biggest common pear tree. A 108-foot pitch pine in Newbury is a national champion, one of just five trees in the Granite State with the coveted title.

Sponsored by UNH Cooperative Extension, the state’s Division of Forests and Lands, and Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the Big Trees Program started in 1950. There are now more than 1,000 recorded trees in New Hampshire’s searchable database, including current winners, and those that have since died or been “dethroned.”

“It’s kind of an addictive thing to do,” said Wallace, the program’s statewide coordinator and a Barrington resident. “Almost as dangerous as (birding).”

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Open to the general public, people are encouraged to nominate trees they think might break a record. Some come across champions in their own backyard by happenstance, while others, like Wallace, get intrigued by the search – and it becomes a hobby.

The explorations take big tree connoisseurs across public and private lands, the latter with permission: front yards, cemeteries, historic estates, and wetlands deep in inaccessible, forested areas. Volunteers oftentimes find themselves bushwhacking through wild growth that hasn’t been traversed by human feet in years. 

“I got pretty caught up in it,” said Kevin Martin, a boat builder in Epping who has written two books about big trees in New Hampshire and Northern New England. He used to be the Big Trees Program coordinator prior to Wallace taking over.

Martin maintains an active Facebook page called “Big Trees of Northern New England” that has close to 2,000 followers, where he chronicles his visits around the state and region. Last month, he posted about bringing two of his grandsons to the woods in Northwood to measure the second largest hemlock in the state. In July, he measured a chestnut oak in Raymond that became the new Rockingham County champion.

“Sometimes there’s a pretty good connection between the trees themselves and people,” Martin said. “People tend to like going out and they learn how to measure them correctly and things like that. I’ve led tours in Portsmouth and Exeter where whole groups of people go out. By yourself, it’s a little bit more special, to me anyways, because you run into wildlife a little more.”

Martin is partial to white cedar, an evergreen coniferous tree, because he uses it often in his boat- and canoe-building work. He likes that it’s usually found “in a swamp somewhere far away,” the ground around it mossy.

The winners’ list sports much more than just towering oaks and pines, though there are plenty of those. The term “big trees” is relative to the species in question. In Wallace’s town, they have the state champion witch hazel, “probably a diameter of four inches tops.”

If a tree is ultimately crowned a new champion after review, the property owner gets an official letter and the opportunity to buy a plaque for bragging rights. The program maintains a virtual map of publicly accessible winners for people to visit, such as a honeylocust in Cornish, a black walnut in Laconia, and a cucumber magnolia in Ossipee. 

While it’s “mostly just fun,” Wallace said, the whole affair speaks to the significance of larger, older trees in the broader ecosystem, particularly through a climate change lens.

“Big trees do have a large role to play in taking up carbon,” Wallace explained. “They are such major repositories of carbon. A big oak, a big pine, a big sugar maple. The big trees are really good at absorbing a lot more. They photosynthesize very efficiently.”

That’s why “old growth” forests are so important, scientists say, because they can trap much more carbon – the leading greenhouse gas contributing to climate change – than newly planted or younger trees. Last year, a new analysis of more than 20,000 trees also showed that old-growth trees are more tolerant of drought and may be better at withstanding future climate extremes.

Next month, UNH Cooperative Extension will host a conference in Moultonborough entirely dedicated to old-growth forests in the eastern U.S. and Canada. Attendees, who can partake in scheduled “forest bathing walks,” will hear presentations about the status of the Northeast’s old-growth forests and how to best manage them, carbon storage and sequestration, and health and human connections. 

“There’s a lot of (big) trees out there that are still to be found,” Martin said. “The biggest thing is people getting out and appreciating them. It helps people realize how important forests and trees are.”

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