Pumpkin ash, first in Arundel, now state champ

Tree lovers at Jug Bay have cataloged a species previously unmeasured in Maryland, the swamp-dwelling pumpkin ash

  • Earl "Bud" Reaves measures a pumpkin ash in the Jug Bay Wetlands.
Earl "Bud" Reaves measures a pumpkin ash in the Jug… (Joe Soriero, Baltimore…)
August 26, 2011|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

It's cool one August morning in a forest near the marsh, quiet but for the occasional bellowing of a few green frogs, and two experts on Maryland's flora and fauna are preparing for a sticky mission.

Earl "Bud" Reaves dons a wide-brimmed hat and pulls on a pair of hip waders.

"A bad day in the woods is better than a good day somewhere else," says Reaves, a forester for Anne Arundel County.

Chris Swarth, clad in a tie-dyed shirt, pulls a bright red flag from his jeans.

"We're going to find that tree, and we're going to mark it," says Swarth, the ecologist who directs the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in southernmost Anne Arundel County.

One night three weeks earlier, a volunteer naturalist made history by wading into the nutrient-rich water and measuring the circumference, height and breadth of "that tree" — a pumpkin ash.

It was the first time a pumpkin ash — far rarer in the state than its look-alike cousin, the green ash — had been mapped, measured and officially recorded in Maryland.

Nearly 60 feet high and 3 feet, 7 inches around, the tree was immediately named state champion for the species. Jug Bay employees learned of the event days later when a certificate came in the mail.

"It's not so much that this tree is huge, though it's good-sized for the species," says Reaves, a friend of Swarth's who is here as a volunteer this day. "It's that [this finding] shows the great variety of habitats we have here in Anne Arundel, not to mention Maryland."

The two climb into an electric cart. The anticipation is high as they pass scrub pines, red maples and sycamores, then get out near a path to the water's edge. Soon enough, it's clear as the rural air why it took a while for anyone, even experts in the field, to find and log an example of Fraxinus profunda.

The pollinator

Swarth, a bird specialist, is always a busy man, heading up a team of five ecologists who spend their days tracking plants and wildlife at Jug Bay, a 3,000-acre freshwater tidal wetland on the Patuxent River.

He hasn't had the time to get out and locate the champion tree, one of a cluster of its kind that were identified on the state- and federal-protected site.

Reaves, a certified arborist, is here because … well, he's the county's go-to expert on tree life, and he's interested.

"[Recording new species and] finding champions is a great way to keep people's minds on the importance of trees," says Reaves, a giant specimen himself at nearly 6 feet 6 inches.

Neither man would be tracking the state's newest star were it not for a program that has been helping catalog Maryland trees for 86 years — or for a friend of theirs who could not be here today, but who has touched them both by bringing that program back to life.

Both are very familiar with John Bennett, 63, a former special-education teacher from Cecil County. About six years ago, Bennett, then just retired, was looking for new ways to spend his time when an acquaintance invited him to a meeting of the local forestry board.

"Everyone was talking about big trees that night," Bennett said during a phone interview from his home near Elk Neck State Park. "I was hooked."

Bennett joined the board and soon learned of a program called Maryland Big Trees. Run by the Department of Natural Resources, it was dedicated to measuring and cataloging the biggest trees of every species in the state.

Using an arcane "points" system developed by Maryland's first state forester, Fred Besley, the program started in 1925 recognizing "county champion" and "state champion" individuals within every species. To date, it lists 138 state champions and 2,258 living "big trees" in Maryland.

The American Forestry Association (now called American Forests) took a version of the program national in 1940. It uses Besley's formula to determine "national champions" and keep its National Register of Big Trees up to date. All 50 states now have Big Tree programs.

Soon after Bennett joined the cause, however, DNR pruned the Maryland organization, transferring control to a group of mostly untrained volunteers in the wake of 2007 budget cuts. Bennett offered to run it for nothing. He has proved a good pollinator, developing a network of 60 unpaid specialists around the state.

One of his best specialists, Pasadena resident Reaves, is just now leading Swarth down a set of railroad-tie steps toward the sanctuary's 1,000-acre marsh and the strip of swampy soil beside it.

"Funny thing about the pumpkin ash," Reaves says. "That's the only kind of place it will grow."


In and of itself, the ash tree is not especially rare. One of its more prolific species, the green ash, pretty much blankets the eastern third of the United States, including Maryland.

Its hard wood is used to make items like baseball bats and ax handles. Its more common forms can grow in many types of terrain, from swamps (wetlands that can host woody growth) to upland (relatively dry soil).

Then there's the pumpkin ash.

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