As a lover of trees, I tend to think of every tree as magnificent in its own way. A special few, however, truly deserve the designation and are considered to be champions of their species.
Champion tree designations are given to the largest-known tree within a species. There are National Champions as well as Kansas Champions and champions of many other states. To determine whether a tree is a champion, trained volunteers and/or foresters measure trees in a specific manner and compare them to other known trees of their kind. There are likely more champion trees growing in Kansas’ native woodlands, parks and neighborhoods that have gone unnoticed and unmeasured.
Three measurements are used to account for differences in height and spread, and a score is assigned to each tree. The score is equal to the sum of the circumference, the tree’s height, and an average of the crown spread, all measured in feet.
Two Kansas Champion Trees are known in Douglas County. The first is a Japanese maple on Kansas University’s campus. At the time of measurement, the maple had a circumference of 2 feet, 5 inches, a height of 21 feet and a crown spread of 26 feet. This is remarkable for a Japanese maple even if it is tiny in comparison to its native maple cousins.
The second Champion Tree in Douglas County is a Shagbark hickory. Hickories are native to northeast Kansas, and this species is named for bark that appears to hang from the trunk in large shaggy pieces. The Champion Shagbark hickory, at time of measurement, was 8 feet, 9 inches in circumference and 91 feet tall with a crown spread of 71 feet.
A list of Champion trees is easily obtained from the Kansas Forest Service or from its website. There are many champions in neighboring Leavenworth, Johnson and Shawnee counties.
To accurately measure trees, the same standards must be used with each tree. Circumference is measured 4 1/2 feet above the ground. If the tree forks at this height or above it, the circumference is measured below the fork. Trees with a fork below 4 1/2 feet are measured at the smallest trunk circumference below the fork.
While 4 1/2 feet from the ground might seem like an odd place to measure, the height is a historical standard for tree measurements. Root flares would influence measurements taken at ground level, and branching would likely play a role in measurements taken higher on the trunk.
Height measurements are taken from the base of the tree to the highest branch.
Crown spread is the trickiest measurement. A tree’s crown includes all of its branches, so the distance from the end of the branches on one side all the way to the end of the branches on the other side must be measured. Since trees are often asymmetrical, the crown is measured twice, at right angles, and the number is averaged.
Trees of the same species that score within five points of each other are considered co-champions.
Seven of Kansas’ Champion trees are also listed as National Champions in the American Forests’ 2008 National Register of Big Trees. Kansas’ National Champions are Oriental arborvitae (Salina), Paper birch (Highland), Narrowleaf cottonwood (Cheyenne County), Washington hawthorn (Overland Park), Dwarf chinkapin oak (Brown County), Western soapberry (Olathe), and Little walnut (Barber County).
If you think you have or know of a champion tree, check the list before contacting the Kansas Forest Service. If your estimated measurements appear larger than the known champion of the species, they will be happy to measure the tree.
Even seemingly little trees can be quite mighty.
— Jennifer Smith is the Horticulture Extension Agent for K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County and can be reached at 843-7058.