Friday, November 28, 2014

Richard E. Byrd III’s National Champion Eastern Hophornbeam Tree

“There are trees, and then there are trees.”
Dick Byrd, 2014

My neighbor, Dick Byrd of Newton, Massachusetts, has a lot to be thankful for. One of his biggest joys is growing or should I say towering in his front yard. It’s a tree, but not just any tree. It’s an Eastern Hophornbeam, and it’s the National Champion – the largest of its species growing in the United States!

We all know that a champion is a person who has defeated or surpassed all of his/her rivals in a competition. It includes someone who fights or argues in support of another person, cause or belief. But what's a champion tree?

It will come as no surprise, that to qualify, a tree must be big. It must be the largest species according to a standard measuring formula, and it must be re-measured every 10 years in order to maintain its champion status. To be eligible, a tree must be native to or naturalized in the continental United States, including Alaska but not Hawaii.

American Forests is the oldest national nonprofit conservation organization in the United States. Their mission is to restore threatened forest ecosystems and inspire people to value and protect urban and wildland forests. Since 1940, their National Big Tree Program has been a testament to American Forests’ legacy of leadership in recognizing the beauty and critical ecosystem services provided by the country's biggest and oldest trees. More than 750 champions are crowned and documented in their biannual American Forests Champion Trees national register, located here.

For more than 70 years, the goal of the program has remained to preserve and promote the iconic stature of these living monarchs and educate people about the key role that these remarkable trees and forests play in sustaining a healthy environment.

Trees are ranked by total points based on the following formula: Circumference (in inches) + Height (in feet) + ¼ Crown Spread (in feet). The tree with the most total points is crowned national champion. The nomination deadlines are March and September 15th for the spring and fall registers, respectively. Dick's champion Hophornbeam has 210 points! I'll tell you how to measure your tree later in the post.

The Eastern or American Hophornbeam - Ostrya virginiania if you're trying to impress Dick - is a member of the birch family of trees. Also known as ironwood, hardhack (in New England) and leverwood, it's generally a small short-lived tree scattered in the understory of hardwood forests. The tree is generally a subordinate species or minor member of most forest communities, when present. That's another unique aspect of Dick's champion - its unusually large size. Perhaps thriving in "the open" and Dick's nurturing nature has facilitated its large growth. 

The Eastern Hophornbeam is a rugged, shade-tolerant tree with an oval or round canopy that grows to 50 feet in height. Dick's champion tops out at 66! It's found throughout the eastern United States and within the mountains of Mexico, south to El Salvador and Honduras. Over this large native range, it thrives in a diversity of climatic conditions and soils. Its small nutlets, which ripen in summer and fall, are used by birds and mammals during the winter. 

It's often grown as an ornamental plant and sometimes used as a street tree. Because of its hardness, it has been used to make tool handles for mallets and posts. It should not be confused with the hornbeam, which is also a member of the birch family. The bark of a hophornbeam has loose strips of reddish brown to gray, creating a rough "clawed" bark.

The hophornbeam's leaf is doubly-serrated with fine teeth at the margin and 2-4 inches long.

I asked Dick what he knew of the age of his champion, it being slow-growing and having achieved such a large size. His best guess was about 135 years based on the age of his house. Dick speaks with the knowledge and ecological pride that comes from his BS in Forestry that he received from the University of Maine, although he doesn't pursue that profession, other than avocationally.

Gazing up at the hophornbeam and shaking his head, Dick says that it has lost a good two-thirds of its crown, and that it wasn't registered until it lost the first third. "After losing the first third, no one would ever know that you have a champion. That's why I registered it. I looked up the previous champion - a tree in Michigan. The Commonwealth came to measure it near the end of 2008."

Dick continued, "These types of trees are often culled early for pulpwood." Given its age and the deteriorated condition of its trunk, he fears that its days are numbered. "One good nor'easter, and that's it!" He's thought of cutting it down but is obviously highly reluctant.

Even before I met Dick, I couldn't help but notice the tree as I jogged through the neighborhood. Maybe it was the signage that he proudly placed on the tree that caught my eye - one high and the other low. "Why the low signage?" I asked. "It's for the kids, and it's fun for everyone to read about it." Unfortunately, the bark that held the signs has rotted off, and they're now displayed on the logs.

I was grateful for Dick telling me the story of his Eastern Hophornbeam and seeing his arboreal pride. He walked me back to my car, and quite sincerely added, "It's nice to find somebody that appreciates a championship tree!" And that I did! I must admit that I sneaked back the next morning to catch the morning sun illuminating its still majestic crown.

1. Measure the distance around the trunk of the tree, in inches, at 4 ½ feet above ground level. This point is called the diameter breast height or dbh.
2. If the tree forks at or below 4 ½ feet, record the smallest trunk circumference below the lowest fork. Record the height at which the measurement was taken. Trees should be considered separate if the circumference measurement below the lowest fork places the measurement on the ground.
3. If the tree is on a slope, measure 4 ½ feet up the trunk on the high and low sides of the slope. The dbh is the average between both points. If the tree is on a steep slope, take the measurement at 4 ½ feet above the midpoint of the trunk.
4. If the tree is leaning, measure the circumference at 4 ½ feet along the axis of the trunk. Make sure the measurement is taken at a right (90 degree) angle to the trunk.

Measure the vertical distance, in feet, between the base of the trunk and the topmost twig. Height is accurately measured using a clinometer, laser, hypsometer, or other specialized tools.  If these tools are not available, height can be estimated using the following “stick method.”

1. Find a straight stick or ruler.
2. Hold the stick vertically at arm’s length, making sure that the length of the stick above your hand equals the distance from your hand to your eye.
3. Walk backward away from the tree. Stop when the stick above your hand is the same length as the tree.
4. Measure the distance from the tree to where you are standing. Record that measurement to the closest foot.

Two measurements of the crown spread are taken and recorded, in feet, at right angles to one another.
1. Measure the widest crown spread, which is the greatest distance between any two points along the tree’s drip line. The drip line is the area defined by the outermost circumference of the tree’s canopy where water drips to the ground.
2. Turn the axis of measurement 90 degrees and find the narrow crown spread.
3. Calculate the average of the two crown spread measurements using this formula: (wide spread + narrow spread)/2 = average crown spread.