Champion Trees

The Plant Conservation Program of the North Carolina Dept of Agriculture manages a series of Preserves across the state specifically to protect state-listed rare plant species. The Redlair Preserve was established primarily because it is home to the largest population east of Alabama of the charismatic and state-listed bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla). However, large preserves with a diverse range of high-quality natural habitat like Redlair often contain biological surprises. Redlair recently provided such a surprise when it was found to be home to two individuals of chalk maple (Acer leucoderme) that significantly surpass the previous champion tree in Chatham County, NC. Chalk maple is a relatively modest-size tree species that looks similar to its larger cousin, southern sugar maple (Acer floridanum), but is largely confined to scattered upland sites on the southern Piedmont with uncommon, calcium-rich soils. Consequently, it is not well known and is often overlooked.

Dr. Robert Peet, while conducting an ecological survey on the Redlair Preserve, had noticed a chalk maple significantly larger than any he had seen before. After comparing its dimensions with those of the reigning state champion, he decided to nominate Redlair’s tree for the title. Late in October 2019 members of the Redlair Stewardship Committee met with staff from the NC Forest Service to measure and verify the potential new state champion tree. As they arrived with measuring tapes and other tools in hand, Katherine Rankin pointed out that there was a second large chalk maple only a few feet away that also should be measured. As it turned out, this second tree was even larger than the one nominated! The system for comparing big trees includes measurements of circumference, height, and average crown spread, documented with a series of photos. These measurements are then used to calculate a total points score which equals circumference plus height plus one-fourth the average crown spread. Measurements were taken for both trees with the larger clocking in at 37.5 inches in circumference at 4.5 feet above ground, 65.1 feet in height, and an average crown spread of 41 feet. This yields a total points score of 112, substantially higher than that of the previous champion’s mere 81 points! What’s even more exciting is that not only is this tree now the new state champion chalk maple, it is also under review for assignment as the new national champion, the reigning champ being the same Chatham County tree that the Redlair tree beat out for the state championship. Come join us for a future workday or hike at the Redlair Preserve and we’ll see that you get to meet this marvel!

Robert K. Peet, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and
Lesley A. Starke, North Carolina Plant Conservation Program