What Makes a Champion Tree?

Champion trees are the super-sized superstars of their species. Blessed by a “perfect storm” of superb growing conditions, Teflon-like resilience to hazards and perhaps a bit of luck, these tree VIPs show what’s possible when everything goes just right in nature.

Around the world, efforts are ongoing to locate the largest trees of each species wherever they grow. In the United States, American Forests National Big Tree Program has maintained a national register of American champion trees since 1940, which currently lists over 750.

It may sound like work reserved for arboreal experts, but tracking down the planet’s biggest trees is actually a collective effort that anyone can join. Amateur tree buffs, citizen scientists and school kids alike are invited to locate and nominate potential champions to help honor the branchy giants among us.

Making a champion

Start by finding an organization that crowns big-tree winners. Scout out nearby state or city tree organizations — examples include the Oregon Champion Tree Registry and Trees Atlanta. Or go national with American Forests (AF).

Next, pick a tree to nominate. To find a contender, some people decide on a specific tree species and start hunting. Others know of large trees in their area (whatever the species) or stumble upon one while hiking or camping.

Before going too far in the nominating process, make sure the tree species you have in mind is eligible to have a champion. AF, for example, lists over 900 eligible species, 200 of which don’t yet have a registered champion.

Also be certain the tree you’ve pinpointed isn’t already listed as a champion. Here’s AF’s register of current champions. And don’t worry about dethroning the reigning champ; the point is to find the biggest tree, and yours may be the new No. 1.

The next step is measuring your tree. AF requires participants to calculate the trunk circumference, height and average reach of the branches (crown spread). Each measure is awarded points and tallied for a total score (representing a tree’s wood volume). Trees with the highest score win. Thus, a champion may not be the tallest of its species or have the thickest trunk; it’s the combination of all three measurements that determines its champion status.

Arriving at calculations can be a bit complicated. There’s a lot of recommended equipment, from a simple tape measure to a handheld laser hypsometer, which provides height, range and angle measurements. AF details its requirements in a tree-measuring handbook published in 2014.