A big tree - a champion tree - is a tree among trees.
It stands head and shoulders above the rest, a silent sentinel to the history it has witnessed.
If only it could talk.
It might tell about generations of families that it has seen come and go, their picnics in its shade, their children that have climbed its limbs or swung from a tire on a rope.
It might tell of the squirrels, songbirds, hawks, and owls it has nested. Of mighty weather events - thunderstorms to blizzards, withering droughts to frog-drowning downpours. Of starry summer nights full of shooting stars and cold winter days overwhelmed by thick rolls of deep gray snow clouds. Of orange harvest moonlight and blazing sunset reflections on its leave and limbs.
Too, it might tell of a life in a deep woodlot-turned-farm fencerow-turned-clipped-lawn subdivision.
A big tree is the ultimate stoic. It has no where to run, no where to hide. It just stands there and takes what life gives, no matter what. Few of them reach such great age and size unscathed and unchallenged.
Its scars may hint at its checkered past. A blackened streak wounding its trunk from a lightning strike. Empty “sockets” from missing limbs, sawn off by man's design or broken off by howling-banshee winds. Withered or dying branches where insects or infectious funguses have taken their toll.
A big tree, thus, is gnarly and knobby. It rarely is a classic beauty as seen in field guides or textbooks.
Slow-growing species, such as the oak, hickory, walnut, black cherry, and sugar maple, may live to 250 to 300 years. These species typically have the harder wood and tighter grain.
A huge bur oak, rooted at Goll Woods State Nature Preserve in Fulton County, was felled in a storm several years ago. It was aged at about 350 years, said Stephanie Miller, a forester with the state forestry division's district office at Findlay.
Softer-wooded species - such as silver maple, cottonwood, sycamore, and willow - grow to champion proportions more quickly but live to just 100 to 150 years, the forester said.
Ohio is home to many big trees, a goodly number of them confirmed as state champions and a handful that have reigned or continue to reign as national champions - the biggest specimens known of their kind.
A Big Tree program is run by the Ohio Forestry Association, in cooperation with the Ohio Division of Forestry. Its goal is to find, identify, and certify the biggest trees in the state.
The program has been under way for 46 years and hundreds of Ohioans have helped locate the champions - tucked here in a remote woodlot, deep in a state forest there. Along a farmland fencerow or a scenic stream, or in an urban backyard.
No less than 118 species of trees, both native species and those naturalized to the United States, are eligible for champion status. Another 56 species of ornamental and nonnative trees also are included.
The biggest tree in Ohio is a sycamore in a woodlot in Ashland County. A former national champion of its species and still state sycamore champion, in 1997 it had a circumference of 582 inches, a height of 129 feet, and a crown spreading 105 feet.
National champions in Ohio include an American smoketree in Hamilton County; a two-winged silverbell, also in Hamilton County; a Siberian elm, Warren County; a shingle oak, Hamilton County; the Ashland County sycamore; a yellowwood, Hamilton County, and two slippery elms, co-champions in Huron and Fairfield counties.
The latest edition of the national big-tree registry shows that the Siberian elm and sycamore have slipped from their top national rankings. But an English oak, Hamilton County, and northern pin oak, Stark and Fairfield counties, may be confirmed as top of their species in the country.
Northwest Ohio alone is home to 15 state champion trees among the native and nonnative classifications.
The OFA sells a booklet, “Ohio's Big Trees,” an OFA 100th anniversary edition of which is being prepared for 2003. The current 1997 edition is available for $6, including postage, by writing to: The Ohio Forestry Association, P.O. Box 970, Grove City, Ohio, 43123-0970. Or call 614-497-9580.
In addition to listing the state's champion trees, their sizes, and locations, the booklet also shows how to measure a potential champion and how to nominate it.
The association also offers some tips about big-tree search etiquette:
If the tree is on private property, ask the landowner's permission before trespassing on the land.
Take no “souvenirs” from the tree itself. Ask about keeping fallen limbs, seeds, or leaves. Otherwise, take away only photographs and memories.