Towering Tree Earns Place In Record Book


Huge Black Gum Discovered In A Shore Swamp Proves A Champion For Worcester County

April 22, 2009|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,

SNOW HILL - If a tree grows in the forest but no one is around to measure it, can it be a champion? This is not one of those chin-stroking metaphysical riddles. There's an easy answer: Nope.

Which is why Salisbury University ecologist Joan Maloof ventured recently into a wooded Eastern Shore swamp. Armed with a tape measure, the 52-year-old scientist was on a mission to gauge the size of a soaring black gum tree she had spotted last year.

The dimensions would tell whether this tree was mighty enough to dethrone the reigning state champ black gum in Montgomery County. One thing was certain: It would be tops in Worcester County, since no black gum there had yet been registered with the Maryland Big Tree Program, sort of the Elias Sports Bureau for the arboreal set.

Tracking big trees is far from a pointless pursuit. Tree size matters, offering clues about the health of species and entire forests. And the rankings foster conservation, enthusiasts say, by giving the owners of record-holders added incentive to keep and care for them.

Of course, bragging rights are nice, too. Maryland boasts 16 national champions or co-champions, half of them in Baltimore, Howard, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties. The state used to have the biggest white oak in the union until the famed Wye Oak toppled in a 2002 storm.

Eight Maryland counties maintain their own big tree lists, and in 2006 Maloof teamed with a graduate student named Ronald Lindblom to include neighboring Wicomico County in that group. Precise locations are often kept secret to deter vandalism.

Now, as Maloof tromped down a pine needle path into the Nassawango Creek Preserve near Snow Hill, she looked forward to being reunited with her black gum, also known as a tupelo. Before plunging into the soggy muck, she pulled on waterproof hip waders.

"There she is!" Maloof sang out as she reached the tree. She had stumbled across it last summer while surveying the preserve for the Nature Conservancy, which owns the one-time timberland. An impressive specimen, the tree dominates a cluster of black gums, hollies and bald cypresses much as the Empire State Building towers over its part of Manhattan.

This crisp spring morning was a fine day for taking a tree's measurements. No chiggers or ticks to worry about so early in the season. And with most branches still leafless, the eye could readily spy the upper reaches.

First Maloof recorded the circumference of the massive trunk by wrapping a tape measure around it. The result: 13 feet, 1 inch. Points are based on the number of inches; in this case the math worked out to 157.

Right away, Maloof questioned whether this tree would in fact rewrite the record books. She knew of an even heftier one elsewhere. But just as figure skaters are judged on both artistic and technical merits, a big tree is graded on more than girth. Two other qualities count as well: height and canopy spread.

She turned next to the canopy, gazing skyward to ascertain where the branches spread the widest. She measured the distance on the ground at 50 feet. Then she checked the canopy at a 90-degree angle and got 34 feet. The average breadth - 42 feet - was divided by four to yield the points: 10.

So far, the tree had amassed 167 points, with height still to go. In that last measurement, each foot counts as one point. After walking 15 meters from the tree, she peered up through a compass-sized device called a clinometer, which uses trigonometry to calculate height.

The tree topped out at 84 feet. Would it be enough for the proverbial laurel wreath? Alas, no way. It had 251 total points. As it turns out, the Montgomery champ is a real beast with 313 points.

That black gum replaced the prior record-holder, also in Montgomery, which had 287 points before it died. The new champ was measured just last year, showing the potential for flux in the list. Because trees die, lose limbs and are felled, a tree needs to be remeasured every 10 years to keep its title.

Still, Maloof's tree is no slouch. It ranks fourth among all registered Maryland black gums, behind only the new champ and trees in Washington and Harford counties.

"Pretty good size for a black gum," said John Bennett when reached by phone at his Cecil County home. He coordinates the state's volunteer-led big tree program, which began in 1924 as the nation's first official registry.

With Maryland's wealth of big trees, it's fairly common for people to ask Bennett to measure one on their property. Anyone may submit dimensions of a contender, though Bennett said the figures are verified before going into the record books.

The national black gum leader, by the way, lives in Texas. It is 110 feet tall and 19 feet around and has 362 points.

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