Does size matter?

By Larry Hamilton | Tree Warden

In response to the above question, I would say that it does.

Folks often refer to “the 500-pound gorilla in the room”—indicating a mass that cannot be ignored. In the tree world, many people are intrigued with which species or which individual tree is the tallest or has the thickest trunk or the greatest mass. It was to satisfy this interest and several queries that in 1996 I instituted a contest to identify and inventory the biggest individuals of our native tree species in Charlotte. To simplify things we used only the girth (circumference) at a standard height of 4.5 feet above average ground level. Both children and adults were encouraged to go out and measure girth (with a string that could then be measured on a flat surface with a tape) on their own property or on a tree that they knew of. Size and location were then sent to the tree warden on a postcard or note, and when a likely candidate was identified, I would go out and check it.

Garret Elm

Vermont’s new champion big tree of slippery elm species on Thompson’s Point Road. Photo: Larry Hamilton

The response was amazing. It resulted in the publication of a Roster of Charlotte’s Big Trees. This list is updated as former champions are replaced by new larger specimens. Both common names and Abenaki names (when available) were used. This roster may be found at Town Hall on the bulletin board.

The slippery or red elm standing in front of the home of Christie and Dave Garrett on Thompson’s Point Road has always impressed me mightily, and indeed, with a girth of 232 inches, it is the biggest of its kind in Charlotte. I well remember measuring this tree in 1996 with the help of Erick Crockenberg (next door neighbor of the Garretts) when this impressive young man was just a tad of about 6 years old. At that time we measured it at 212 inches, so it has increased in circumference by 20 inches in 20 years.

It now turns out that not only is this the “champion big tree” of its species in Charlotte but in the whole of Vermont. It is also larger than any competitors in New Hampshire, New York and Maine. It is not a national champion—that tree is in Kentucky and has a girth of 282 inches. We (Gus Goodwin of Vermont Nature Conservancy and I) are registering the Garretts’ tree in the official Vermont List of Big Trees. Incidentally, The Nature Conservancy is interested in this tree to test resistance to Dutch elm disease, and Gus has collected seed for propagation.

While on this topic of size, at the Charlotte Central School Arbor Day ceremony I was impressed with the level of awareness of the young students. Many of them knew the identity of the tallest tree in the world, the California redwood. The tallest, which I saw in late March in Redwood National Park, is 379 feet tall (taller than a 13-story building). Several students also were able to identify the thickest and most massive tree species as the giant sequoia. The largest of these is 36.5 feet in diameter (two VW Beetles end-to-end) at the base!

I also asked the students if anyone knew which was the oldest tree species in the world and was delighted when one young man answered, “bristlecone pine.” These grow in tough conditions in California’s White Mountains and have attained ages of over 5,000 years! Impressive students! Before leaving the topic of size, I must recount an item that I recently encountered in the journal Natural History. A clonal group of trembling or quaking aspen occupies 106 acres on Fishlake National Forest in central Utah! It is thought to be the world’s largest living organism and has been given the name Pando, from the Latin for “I spread.” It is composed of an estimated 47,000 genetically identical stems called ramets, all from a single individual through root suckering. However, like all living things of great size, age or rarity, natural- or human-caused stresses are at work, and tender, loving care is necessary. In the case of Pando, grazing by deer, elk and cattle is reducing the number of young sapling ramets, and a warmer, drier climate is adversely affecting health. Fencing is being used to deal with the former. But global society has so far been unwilling or unable to significantly reduce carbon dioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere that cause climate change.

In thinking about size in trees, it is well to remember that today’s champions once were tiny, having been planted by nature or by human action. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. Planting trees today means big trees for the future—perhaps a real champion, like the Garretts’ slippery elm.