Howard Co. tree grows into spotlight

Rare bigleaf magnolia, far north of usual habitat, may soon be named largest of the species in U.S.

October 13, 2007|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Special to The Sun

Like many a mystery, this one began with a walk in the woods. Joseph Gochar discovered an unusual tree with 2-foot leaves in the park near his Catonsville home.

His curiosity turned him into an amateur botanical detective. He learned the mystery tree was the rare bigleaf magnolia, a species not previously documented in Maryland. His sleuthing eventually helped lead to the recent discovery, in Howard County, of the largest bigleaf magnolia believed to exist in the nation.

And there's another mystery: What is this huge specimen doing so far outside its home range in the Southeastern United States? The tree, on a West Friendship farm, may be named the national champion bigleaf magnolia by the American Forests organization this spring, when it publishes the newest National Register of Big Trees.

The biennial nomination process for the register closes Nov. 1, and the Howard County tree's championship prospects look good, according to those familiar with the contest.

The tree's discovery this summer capped a process that began several years ago. A mechanical engineer, Gochar became fascinated by the species during strolls at Patapsco Valley State Park near his home.

Although not especially tall, the tree is notable for its huge leaves and flowers. The soft green leaves might be up to 30 inches long, while the aromatic white flowers might be a foot wide. Using the Internet, Gochar identified the tree as the bigleaf magnolia, or Magnolia macrophylla.

He contacted state botanist Christopher Frye, who confirmed the identification. "I was shocked the first time I went to visit Joe [Gochar] and saw these beautiful bigleaf magnolias growing at the park," Frye said. He had seen the tree before - in his native North Carolina, home of the current national champion.

"It was a surprise that this tree was hiding out in little ravines in the state park and vicinity. We're not talking about a single tree that was obviously planted in someone's yard. These trees were along trails. There were several hundred of them," said Frye, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife and Heritage Service.

Considered rare in several states, the species is usually found in some south-central and Gulf Coast states, with a small pocket in southern Ohio. A wild population had not been documented as far north as the Maryland trees, Frye said. "Historical records don't mention it."

Frye said he has also received reports of wild bigleaf magnolias in Rocks State Park in Harford County and the Hugg-Thomas Wildlife Management Area, which straddles the Carroll-Howard county line.

Gochar shared his enthusiasm for the bigleaf with his sister, Sandy Brown, a sign-language interpreter from Glenelg. She was discussing her brother's interest with a friend this summer when the friend mentioned finding a tree with large leaves on a West Friendship farm. Brown told her brother about the conversation. He helped relay the information to the forestry board and the Maryland Big Tree Program.

The tree's owners requested that their names and the location be kept private, officials said.

Program volunteers sprang into action. They took photos and measured the Howard County tree, which became the state champion bigleaf magnolia. The specimen is 55 feet tall, measures 12 feet, 1 inch, in circumference, and has a 53 1/2 -foot average crown spread. It earned 213 points under a weighted formula used by the American Forests program. The reigning national champ, on the Biltmore estate in Asheville, N.C., has 170 points.

The measurements are being sent to American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization that catalogs the largest specimens of 826 species of native and naturalized trees in the country, which will determine the national champions, said American Forests Executive Director Deborah Gangloff.

The Washington, D.C.-based group has been documenting big trees since 1940, when it adopted a program originally developed by Fred W. Besley, Maryland's state forester from 1906 to 1942.

Although the originator of the program, Maryland cut its big tree program from the state budget July 1. The program is now run by volunteers, although the state DNR provides staff help.

So what's the importance of a big tree? "Larger trees do more good for people and the environment," Gangloff said. Because of their size, the trees can filter more water and air, and manage storm water better, she said.

The designation of a national champion tree brings bragging rights, but it doesn't carry any financial or legal benefits. Help might be available in other forms.

"If we can identify big trees, we can make efforts to protect them. We can work with landowners on best-management practices on their property," said DNR spokeswoman Olivia Campbell. Easements might also be available.

The bigleaf magnolia is endangered in two states and considered rare in some other locations. Can the magnolia be placed on Maryland's rare, threatened and endangered species list?

First, scientists would have to answer one question, said Frye, the state botanist. Is the bigleaf magnolia a Maryland native that somehow escaped scientific notice for decades? Or did someone plant it near a park, where it began growing in the wild?

"It's almost a detective story," he said. "I would love to know where it came from." Perhaps a graduate student will research the origins of the Maryland bigleafs, he said.

There are no federal data showing "native or spontaneously reproducing populations of Magnolia macrophylla in Maryland," said Mark Skinner, national botanist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The presence of the bigleaf in Maryland "tells you something about the changing dynamics about where trees can live and grow," said John Bennett, manager of the Maryland Big Tree Program. "We would have said 20 years ago that we would not find a bigleaf magnolia growing in Maryland."

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