Just outside Hutcheson Hall on the Virginia Tech campus, a champion tree hides in plain sight. Its green leaves turn bright scarlet in the fall, and its orange-red bark peels in thin, papery layers. The Acer griseum, more commonly known as paperbark maple, is the largest of its species known to exist in Virginia.
The identification and registration of big trees in Virginia, including 13 on the Virginia Tech campus, is a passion project for Eric Wiseman, associate professor of urban forestry in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. Wiseman coordinates the Virginia Big Tree Program, which has been identifying the state’s big trees since 1970.
“Our mission with the Virginia database is twofold: to document the big trees in the state and to advocate for their conservation and care,” said Wiseman, of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “We have a section on our site called ‘Protecting Trees’ that details the three main threats to big trees, which include storms and lightning, construction and soil disturbance, and land development.”
Wiseman’s efforts have recently elevated Virginia into second place on the Champion Tree National Register maintained by American Forests. Virginia’s tally of 88 champion and co-champion trees trails Florida’s 132 trees and ranks just ahead of third-place Texas, with 81 trees.
Virginia is a surprise contender considering its size and level of urbanization. Wiseman notes that the state’s high ranking reflects the hard work of dedicated individuals.
“I like to tout the rankings as an indication and an acclamation for the people in the state who are so passionate about big trees,” Wiseman said. “It’s not so much that Virginia is a bastion of big trees; it’s that we have people who are passionate about big trees and keen to go out and find them.”
Byron Carmean’s passion for finding and documenting big trees truly stands out. Carmean, who earned a horticulture degree at Virginia Tech in 1970, started searching for and documenting big trees in 1983 after seeing the state’s big tree list published in the Virginia Forestry Association’s magazine.
“I started looking down the list with some interest. I’d see one and think, ‘I think I’ve seen one bigger than that.’ I got in touch with Gary Williamson, who was working as a ranger at Northwest River Park in Chesapeake, and he mentioned that he had seen a couple of trees that he thought were very big. We got together and found a winged sumac that became a national champ,” Carmean said.
Carmean’s and Williamson’s contributions to the database are significant: they share credit for 53 of Virginia’s 88 national champion and co-champion trees, and have discovered an additional 269 state champion and co-champion trees. Not content to stay local, their passion for hunting big trees has brought them to North Carolina, South Carolina, and Kentucky, where they have tracked down additional state and national champions. American Forests credits Carmean and Williamson with identifying more national champion and co-champion trees than anyone else in the country.
Carmean’s background in horticulture and tree science has been a boon to his efforts. “It really helps to be familiar with the big tree list and what is big for each species of tree,” he said. “What’s big for a dogwood wouldn’t be comparable to what’s big for a maple or an oak, so you need to have a deep knowledge of trees.”
Three factors go into measuring a tree: trunk circumference, tree height, and the average spread of the tree’s crown. While some trees require specialized tools to accurately assess a tree’s score, most can be measured using a yardstick and a 100-foot measuring tape.
Big tree hunting can be done anywhere. While enthusiasts like Carmean and Williamson enjoy hiking through unexplored forests, many Virginia state and national champion trees grow in city centers, on college campuses, and at historically significant sites like Arlington National Cemetery, Monticello, and Montpelier.
Wisemen notes that big tree enthusiasts find a variety of avenues to their passion. “For Byron Carmean and Gary Williamson, they like the thrill of the hunt. For others, it is the cultural and historical ties with the trees that fascinate them, that sense of connecting a tree to moments in history.”
When asked what continues to inspire his passion, Wiseman said, “As a certified arborist for over 20 years, I think I’m drawn to the trees on an individual level. Because I understand tree anatomy and physiology, I have an appreciation for the fact that these gigantic organisms can live for so long. And I get excited about the mathematics of it. Sometimes trees are straightforward to measure, but other times you have to incorporate some heavy-duty geometry and trigonometry to figure out how to score them.”
The Virginia Big Trees website has information about how to measure and report big trees, as well as a comprehensive database detailing Virginia’s current state and national champions. To ensure that the Virginia Big Tree database is up-to-date and accurate, all trees need to be recertified every 10 years. This process includes verifying that the tree is still alive, identifying any threats to its well-being, and assessing whether a tree’s score should be adjusted. The program is always looking for volunteers for recertification efforts; interested individuals should visit the website for more information.
— Written by Krista Timney