Throughout the years, residents, foresters, naturalists and other sources, have identified trees of unusual size in Arlington County. We have close to 100 champion trees, ranging from county champions to state champions. These trees are measured, compared to other champions, and if found to be large enough, listed on the county and/or state champion tree websites.
What does Champion tree designation mean?
What makes a champion tree a champion tree is its size (for the species). This can mean a gigantic almost 100 foot tall State Champion Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) (Figure 1), as pin oaks can get very large.
It can also mean a less obvious, 10 ft. tall Deerberry (Vaccineum stamineum), along the George Washington Parkway (Figure 2), as deerberry never gets very large.
Champion Tree designation does not give a tree any legal protection (unlike our Specimen Tree Designation), but it does recognize it as a value to our community and ecosystem.
Measuring champion trees
When you measure a tree for champion tree nomination, you measure:
- Trunk circumference in inches
- Height in feet
- Spread of tree limbs in two perpendicular directions
These get added as Circumference + Height + ¼ of the Average spread. This gives you a numerical score, which allows you to compare trees. The pin oak (above) for example, has a circumference of 218 inches, height of 98 feet and a crown spread of 112. This all adds up to a score of 344, making it the biggest known pin oak in the state of Virginia!
How old are these large trees?
While measuring trees can tell you a lot, it doesn’t necessarily tell you what age it is. A 40 inch willow oak may only be 30 years old, and a 40 inch white oak may be 100 years old. A tree grown in full sun grows faster than a tree grown in the forest. There are charts and tables for estimating age, but what foresters in Arlington usually use is a very crucial moment in our history: the Civil War.
The Civil War required massive resources for both sides of the war, and during the defense of Washington, 99% of the trees in what is now Arlington County were cut down for sight lines, fuel and construction material. This created a very bare community, but it also gives us a good idea of how old a tree can be. When looking at very large trees and the environment they grew up in, we usually start at the maximum age of 130 years and work down based on the species growth rate and its likely history.
It is still possible that a tree exceeds this age, as it may have been kept as a shade tree for soldiers, not removed because it was in a stream valley, or otherwise not in the way, or useable for materials. Unless you use a tree corer or remove the tree and count the rings, it is very hard to ascertain a tree’s age beyond the guidelines provided. Champion trees are generally older than the average tree, but may just be lucky, or in a perfect spot for that species’ growth. Don’t let a low age degrade the value of the tree, though, as its value is in what it provides, not its history.