A champion tree grows in Akron
The ground next to Dale and Richard McCandless’ Akron home is thick with marble sized hickory nuts.
But Dale doesn’t mind, “This is a messy tree, and we’ve got a messy yard.”
Theirs is the largest red hickory (Carya ovalis) in the country, something Richard hadn’t realized until I showed up to see it.
Dale apparently forgot to mention to her husband that the hickory just a few yards from their house is on the official registry of champion trees.
Twice a year, the conservation group American Forests updates the list of the largest specimens of each of 750 tree species in the country. The McCandless’ red hickory was added in 2010.
Dale, at the urging of their daughter, had sent measurements of the tree’s girth, height, and spread to the state’s Forestry Division.
She says she had almost forgotten about it until, nearly a year later, an arborist from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources arrived to inspect it. She says his immediate reaction was, "'Wow!’ and he got all excited and he started measuring it.”
The record red hickory measures more than 12 feet in circumference and it’s 93 feet high. Arborists estimate its age as only 80 to 90 years, with plenty of growing life ahead.
The jagged bark makes it hard to hug, but the three of us gingerly wrap our arms around it anyway.
Dale McCandless says autumn is when the tree really shines. "The leaves on this tree are really like sunshine --brilliant slices of gold up there.”
An ancient tree saved from the saws
The Washington D.C.-based American Forests has maintained the list of champion trees since 1941. Program coordinator Sheri Shannon says foresters back then recognized that America had lost many of its biggest trees to the ax and to plagues like chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease. “Trees face a lot of things throughout their lifetimes," Shannon says. "It can be disease and pests, natural disasters, fires, even the negligence of humans.”
A light rain is falling in North Canton as Rod Covey shows me damage to a tree he loves. It's a 400-year-old cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata).
He says a windstorm in September 2000 took down a large branch, "probably 40 inches in diameter.”
Covey says property damage was minimal -- a squashed shrub, a bent fence. But it was enough to prompt someone, Covey still isn’t sure who, to leave a note at the entrance to the gated condo community, threatening to cut the tree down.
Covey leapt into action. At the next condo meeting he brought along a piece of the broken limb to prove the tree was strong and healthy.
“I was really inspired," says Covey. And to drive home the point, he "hit that piece of wood on the table, and people said, 'No, no, no; let’s keep it.’”
Saving Earth's largest living things
This tree sprouted decades before the Pilgrims landed. Now, at around 440 years-old, it’s 25 feet around, nearly 100 feet tall, and still growing.
Covey has shown the tree to 1,600 visitors since its near downfall. He believes the giant has an effect on people. "And whether they have an infirmity, or whether there’s something in the past, they’re starting to think. It gets you to thinking.”
Back in his condo, Covey hopes his story of saving the giant cucumber magnolia inspires other tree huggers to keep a watchful eye on the forests.
He says he'd like to think the people who come to see the giant tree, "are being strengthened and they maybe go back and fight the battle if something comes up like that.”
Covey worries that his equally elderly neighbors might not be up to the task of watching over their champion cucumber tree. He claims to be the last man standing in the vicinity of the tree, "So if I get hit by a bus, I don’t know what would happen to it.”
The largest and oldest living things on earth are dying at an alarming rate. A study in the journal Science shows that big trees across the globe are in rapid decline.
But American Forests hopes its list of national champion trees helps to bring attention to these giants and inspires people to protect them.