Anchoring one end of his tape measure in the soft bark of the Liberty Tree, Colby Rucker wraps it around the yellow poplar's massive trunk.
Once a state champion, this historic yellow poplar, standing onthe campus of St. John's College in Annapolis, was dethroned this summer. The new big-tree champion, in Baltimore County's Gunpowder Falls State Park, narrowly edged the Annapolis champ under a point systemthat includes height, girth and crown size, according to two state foresters who have published a list of the state's largest trees.
Rucker, a self-proclaimed "tree nut," is suspicious. Several years ago, he measured the circumference of the Liberty Tree's trunk at 26 feet 7 inches. The new list, "The Big Tree Champions of Maryland 1990," sets its circumference at 26 feet.
With mock indignation, he whipped out his measuring tape Tuesday afternoon. Stretching it around the trunk, Rucker reads the tape measure -- 26 feet 11 1/2 inches -- and grins.
"So this is still the state champion!" he exclaims.
But, Rucker quickly adds, "I'm not going stage a sit-down strike oranything. You can't take all of this too seriously. It's just supposed to be for fun."
Even without the Liberty Tree, Anne Arundel County still produced 22 champions, ranging from a Carolina hemlock in Round Bay to a ginkgo in Annapolis to a slippery elm in Churchton. Only two counties -- Prince George'swith 27 and Baltimore with 23 -- hadmore champions.
Centuries ago, sailors navigated their way up theChesapeake by a massive Southern red oak in Harwood, now known amongneighborhood children as "Mr. Mustache" because of the shape of its branches.
"We have a lot of fond memories around that tree," said Sally Bridgeman, who co-owns the family farm with her brothers and sisters. "One of my grandmother's last words to me were, 'Take care of that tree.' "
Rob Prenger, a state Department of Natural Resourcesforester, said searching for big trees has long been a popular hobbyamong foresters. The state began listing its champions -- one per species -- in 1925.
"There is a certain notoriety in finding a big tree," Prenger said. "Even though it may not be on their property, they are always scouring the countryside for bigger and better trees."
This summer, Prenger and another forester, Maureen Brooks, published the first big-tree index in Maryland since 1973. Their 128-page book lists the largest trees of 157 species.
Property owners, forest rangers and tree nuts like Rucker nominated 579 trees statewide for this year's list. By contrast, 450 trees were nominated in 1925.
Rucker, a grounds supervisor at the State House and former tree surgeon, has been keeping a list of championship trees in Anne Arundel County for more than three decades. He nominated hundreds of county trees for the competition and has five champions -- including mountain laurel, spice bush and rose of Sharon -- on his wooded property in Arnold.
"He probably has the biggest list for an individual that I have ever seen," Prenger said. To determine the size of a tree, forestry officials follow guidelines used by the American Forestry Association,which has published lists of national champion trees since the 1940s. Five Maryland champions, including the Wye Oak, the official state tree, also are national champions for their species.
In choosing achampion, foresters consider height, circumference and size of crown. A tree's crown is the outline of what would be seen if the tree's shadow was measured at noon.
A point total is determined by adding the circumference of the trunk in inches, the height of the tree in feet, and 25 percent of the average crown spread in feet. Tree trunks are measured 4 1/2 feet from the ground.
The big-tree book, available at some state park concession stands, also has a section on historic trees, such as the Liberty Tree, estimated to be more than 400 years old. According to legend, the Sons of Liberty met under the tree during the American Revolution.
"Once you convert trees into batting averages, everybody takes notice," Rucker said.