Howard County is home to the national champion bigleaf magnolia tree, even though no one knows how it came to be so far outside its home range in the South.
American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization, has included the tree in its National Register of Big Trees, a biennial listing of the largest known trees in 826 species. The 2008-2009 register was released Friday for National Arbor Day.
The bigleaf magnolia, located at a farm in West Friendship, stands 55 feet tall, measures more than 12 feet around the trunk. The species is famous for its leaves, which may reach 30 inches in length, and white flowers that may be a foot wide.
The Howard County tree dethroned the previous champ on the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.
"I'm very pleased," said Joseph Gochar, the Catonsville resident whose amateur botanical sleuthing led to the discovery of the champion bigleaf magnolia.
Gochar became fascinated by the unusual species after discovering some specimens in the park near his home. He shared his interest with his sister, who learned about a similar tree in West Friendship. Gochar informed the Maryland Big Tree Program. Program volunteers measured the tree and nominated it for national championship.
The bigleaf magnolia, which is considered rare in several states, is found in some south central and Gulf Coast states and southern Ohio. A wild population had not been previously documented as far north as the trees in Maryland.
John Bennett, volunteer coordinator of the Maryland Big Tree Program, said the state was well represented with a total of 18 champions in the National Register of Big Trees.
"We tend to complain that developers are ruining the state, and the environment is terrible, but we have more big trees and champion trees than we had before," he said.
Maryland benefits from a climate favorable to the longevity of trees, along with some private landowners who can afford to care for big trees, Bennett said.
"We avoided the terrible storms and hurricanes of the Gulf that devastated the big trees of Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida," he said. "We avoid the tornados of the Midwest and the flooding in the areas throughout the Ohio Valley that devastated trees."
Maryland landowners have gone to the time and expense of hiring arborists to fertilize and look for dead branches, install cables to keep branches from falling off, and protect big trees from lightning, he said.
Eight of the 18 champions in Maryland are new to the register, including a 136-foot American elm in Baltimore County, a 98-foot shagbark hickory in Anne Arundel County, and a 93-foot Atlantic white cedar in Bel Air.
A new rule at American Forests created opportunities for many new champions this year, said Margo Dawley, a program director at the Washington-based agency. American Forests began requiring all champs to be re-measured within 10 years to stay on the list. Some trees fell off the list because they had died or could not be found for measuring, she said. The group crowned 219 new champions and co-champions in 44 states and Washington, D.C.