Chronicles Of Measuring Champion Trees

Big Leaf Maple

Update: As of 3/2011, the National Champion Bigleaf Maple in Jewell, Oregon is on the ground.  Read more about the passing of this remarkable giant here.

The Maple family (Aceraceae) is made up of over 120 (often very common) species of trees and shrubs which are native to every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Not surprisingly, the largest member of this family is found in the lush coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest. The Big leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) is a common sight in these forests with its moss covered branches searching for light beneath the dense conifer canopy.


The Big Leaf Maple that can claim to be the largest known maple in the world is found in Clatsop County, Oregon. It stands at 102 feet tall, with a 122 foot canopy spread, and the trunk measures to 11 feet 11 inches in diameter at breast height.


We estimate the tree is over 200 years old, a figure based largely on the recollection of former land owner George Foster, who recalled the tree first being given champion status in the 1920's. According to Foster, the tree was widely known to be the champion before 1928, when its (then) main trunk tore out. This event crushed a nearby garage where Foster (12 years old at the time) was working, nearly killing him. For a time it threw the tree's status as champion into doubt.


We arrived at the tree around 9:00 AM on a cool Sunday in mid-August, and talked at length with the landowner, who had recently purchased the land and was unaware of the tree's status. After assuring him that no state or government agency had a claim on his land due to the tree, he relaxed and gave us permission to climb the tree. We have kept in contact with this landowner and found that our efforts quickly bore fruit when some nearby timber cutting, which easily could have caused irrepairable damage, was routed away from the venerable tree's structure.


Determining which of the tree's many leaders was the tallest was not easy from any grounded view, so we climbed two leaders simultaneously, taking height measurements of both. We noticed that due to the tree's loss of its main stem, the crown had developed an interesting asymmetry to it; from the top looking down, the crown looked like two or three different trees growing close together at the trunk. We also observed large amounts of lettuce lichen (Lobaria oregana) in the canopy.


After returning to the ground, we measured the tree's crown spread and its enormous trunk. One section contained a burnt out hollow (called a fire cave) big enough for several people to stand up in.

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