A 144 ft tall oak cherrybark tree. Photo taken from the base of the tree looking straight up.
Soaring to 144 feet, this Cherrybark Oak (Quercus pagoda) grows in the Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Bibb County. It became Georgia Forestry Commission Champion Tree #4689 in 2019. Photos courtesy of Georgia Forestry Commission.

Heather Kolich, Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent, UGA Extension Forsyth County and Amanda McPherson, Forsyth County Soil Conservation Technician, Natural Resources Conservation Service

March Madness is winding down for college basketball championships, NHL teams are qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the baseball season is just starting up. It’s fun to cheer for our favorite sports champions, but have you ever thought about the trees that make sports possible? Maples provide hardwood flooring for basketball courts. Maple and ash trees give baseball bats hardness and flexibility. Traditionally, hardwoods such as hickory lent their toughness to hockey sticks.  

Trees compete to be champions in their own fields, too. They contend for light, water, and nutrients required to reach their full potential. Trees ascribe to different game plans for growth. Pines and poplars grow tall to score as much sunlight as possible. Cypress trees thrive under wet conditions that weed out the competition; they even grow “knees” to help transport oxygen to their roots. Black walnut trees secrete a biochemical that makes the soil around them toxic to other plants.

When playing as a team, Georgia’s native trees provide ecosystem services, such as converting carbon dioxide into oxygen and preventing soil erosion. Large trees like oaks and hickories create shade for us and for sun-sensitive understory species like flowering dogwood and sourwood trees. Native trees also sustain wildlife with fruits, nuts, and seeds for food; leaves and needles for nesting materials; and branches and cavities for shelter.

A wide and tall Eastern red cedar tree in full leaf growing in a well maintained cemetary
This Eastern Red Cedar tree (Juniperus virginiana) at the Lone Hill United Methodist Church in Coffee County has trunk circumference of 251 inches. It became a Georgia and National Champion Tree in 2018. Photos courtesy of Georgia Forestry Commission.

In the right place and with the right resources, trees can attain incredible sizes. Champion tree sizes. And this season, Forsyth County’s Extension and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) departments have teamed up with Forsyth County arborists to scout out our county’s first Champion Tree.

Sponsored by the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC), the Champion Tree program is one of several state and national programs that recognize trees that reach exceptional sizes for their species. Although we’ve begun searching, we haven’t found any champions, yet. So, we need your help.

Picture the trees you see and enjoy on your commute, in your backyard, or as you explore our county. Have any of these trees struck you as noteworthy for their size or character? Here are the minimum requirements to be considered for the GFC Champion Tree program:

  • Must be a tree that is native to the United States
  • Must not be listed as an invasive plant species for Georgia
  • Must have a woody stem (trunk) measuring at least 9.5 inches in circumference at the height of 4.5 feet above ground level
  • Must have a fully formed foliage crown and be at least 13 feet tall
A large swamp chestnut oak tree with the beginning of fall color change
Georgia Champion Tree #4752 is a massively spreading Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii) growing in Pulaski County. At its 2021 nomination, it measured 84 feet tall with a crown spread average of 119 feet and a trunk circumference of 250 inches. Photo courtesy of Georgia Forestry Commission.

Champion tree candidates are scored on a point system, earning one point for each inch of circumference, one point for each foot of tree height, and 0.25 point for each foot of average crown spread. GFC’s video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvtfXqEBi70) demonstrates how to measure trees for the Champion Tree program.

If you identify a large, native tree in good condition, please consider nominating it for the GFC Champion Tree Program using the submission form provided below. Native tree field guides for the Southeastern U.S. and apps such as Seek by iNaturalist can assist with tree identification.

Species of particular interest include:

  • Black walnut (Juglans nigra)
  • Boxelder (Acer negundo)
  • Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica)
  • Dogwood (Cornus florida)
  • Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
  • Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
  • Silverbell (Halesia spp.)
  • Southern Crabapple (Malus angustifolia)
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
  • Viburnum (Viburnum spp.)

Keep in mind that champion trees are large relative to their species. A mature Eastern redbud may reach 30 feet in height, so even a Champion of the species couldn’t compete against an oak or American beech. It just needs to meet the minimum measurements of 9.5 inches of trunk circumference at 13 feet tall to compete against other specimens of the same species. Let’s team up, wander our yards and parks, and nominate a few native trees to be Forsyth County champions. Please email Amanda McPherson at almcpherson@forsythco.com with questions or for the submission form.

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