Authors as Published

P. Eric Wiseman, Associate Professor of Urban Forestry, Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, Virginia Tech


Big trees are natural wonders that inspire people and play important roles in forest ecosystems. The Virginia Big Tree Program documents, curates, and publicizes the largest trees known to exist in Virginia. Trees are scored and ranked using measurements of their physical dimensions. Records of past and present big trees are curated in the Virginia Big Tree Register, which is accessible as an online database at Each year the Virginia Big Tree program accepts nominations for newly discovered trees and recertifies trees that were registered 10 or more years prior. Program staff and volunteers also host seminars and workshops about big tree conservation and their documentation of big trees for posterity. This publication provides background information about big trees and accomplishments of the Virginia Big Tree Program during the 2019 calendar year.

History of the Virginia Big Tree Program

The Virginia Big Tree Program traces its origins to the spring of 1970 when Virginia Forests, Inc. (today known as the Virginia Forestry Association) partnered with Virginia Cooperative Extension to launch a new project known as the ‘Big Tree Search’. The aim was to discover and document Virginia’s biggest trees by encouraging youth members of FFA and 4-H to search for the largest trees in their communities. Charles Finley with Virginia Forests handled the record-keeping while William McElfresh with Virginia Cooperative Extension led 4-H youth education on how to locate,

national champion osage-orange tree
Image 1. Big Tree State Coordinator Dr. Eric Wiseman discusses the National Champion osage-orange (Maclura pomifera) in Charlotte county with a member of the national cadre of big tree measurers. Photo by Eric Wiseman, 2017.

Table 1. Virginia big trees recognized as National Champions by American Forests in 2019.

90 Total registered champions

57 Sole champions

33 Co-champions

79 Unique species

21 Newly crowned champions

12 Dethroned champions

Left: national champion northern white-cedar in 1975. Right: same tree in 2019
Image 2. Then and now: the National Champion northern white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis) located in Nelson county in 1975 (left) and in 2015 (right). This tree became the national champion in 2019. People in photo from left to right: Arthur W. Ordel, John A. Carter, and George Walker, who all worked for the Hardwood Lumber Corporation of Virginia at the time that the tree was discovered.

identify, measure, and nominate big trees. Foresters with the Virginia Department of Forestry verified the identity and measurements of the big tree nominees before they were proclaimed champions and placed in the ‘Register of Big Trees’. Over time, the pursuit of big trees spread to amateur naturalists, conservationists, and natural resource professionals. The big tree register was published annually in Virginia Forests magazine throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

In the 1990s, administration of the big tree register transitioned from the Virginia Forestry Association to Virginia Cooperative Extension. There to lead the effort was Dr. Jeffrey Kirwan, professor emeritus of forestry in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech and Extension specialist for natural resources education. As state coordinator of the revived Virginia Big Tree Program, Jeff incorporated big trees into his youth education activities across the state. He also established a web presence for the program in the early 2000s when he created an online register of Virginia’s big trees. Jeff ’s encounters with big trees around the state led him to co-author the highly acclaimed Remarkable Trees of Virginia book in 2008. Jeff also created a ‘big tree internship’ for students at Virginia Tech, made possible through funding from Trees Virginia, to employ a student each summer to assist with documenting big trees. Upon Dr. Kirwan’s retirement, his colleague in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, associate professor of urban forestry Dr. Eric Wiseman, became state coordinator of the program. Since that time, Eric has made improvements to the program website to enhance the user experience and share broader information about not only documenting big trees, but also promoting their conservation and care. The Virginia Big Tree Program has endured for fifty years and remains popular as a source of credible and up-to-date information about champion big trees in Virginia.

Big Trees are Important to People and the Environment

People have an innate connection to trees. They provide us with renewable raw materials, clean air, and pure water. We take comfort in the tranquility of their dappled shade, swaying boughs, and rustling leaves. We commemorate notable events and honor special people by planting trees. Virginia has a heritage of bountiful forests as well as exceptional people and places. At the intersection of all three, we often find prominently situated in the landscape exceptionally large trees—those whose longevity and physical stature goes beyond the ordinary. Big trees reveal to us the upper bounds of the physical and biological limits of plant growth. They offer a glimpse of primeval forests and provide a living connection to our natural and cultural heritage. Their stalwart presence creates a sense of place while their longevity demonstrates fortitude and persistence. They are also a cornerstone of forest ecosystems (both rural and urban), storing large amounts of carbon and offering niche habitats to numerous species that rely on veteran trees for nourishment and refuge. Of course, a tree does not have to be exceptionally large to benefit people and the environment—we need trees of all sizes and ages to sustain us. But big trees are the ones that most often elicit a sense of awe and respect for nature. The goal of the Virginia Big Tree Program is to discover and document big trees, share their stories, and encourage conservation and stewardship of trees both big and small.

Big Tree Biology

Trees are perennial and long-lived, attaining the greatest size of any organism on Earth. Unlike animals, most of which have a determinate mature size, trees grow continually throughout their lives. This is necessary to replace tissues that make carbohydrates (leaves), distribute carbohydrates (phloem), and transport water and soil nutrients (xylem, roots). Growing large also factors into competing with neighboring trees for space and access to light. Not all tree species grow to gigantic proportions, but all species go through peroidic cycles of growing new tissues at the tips of branches and roots and around the girth of stems over the course of their lifespans.

illustration of veteran trees
Image 3. It is common for veteran trees to lose height while gaining trunk girth and crown spread due to wear and tear from the environment. These changes give veteran trees a distinctive look and increase their value as wildlife habitat. Illustration by Brian French, with permission.

As trees reach maturity, their growth rate typically slows in response to both their genetic blueprint and the physical limitations of their growing environment. In many tree species, the growth rate of veteran trees is so slow that it is almost imperceptible to the casual observer. This near-cessation of growth occurs predictably in most species; therefore, most trees end their lives within a typical mature size range for their species. Mature size can be quite variable for tree species occurring across large geographic areas with diverse climate and soil quality. For example, Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana) rarely exceeds 70-feet tall in mountainous areas, but specimens over 85-feet tall are not uncommon in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain.

Some trees reach extraordinary size for their species. How does this happen? To put it simply, extraordinary size is a product of good genes and a favorable

national champion honeylocust in downtown Fincastle
Image 4. Many big trees are found in urbanized settings, such as the National Champion honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos) in downtown Fincastle, Botetourt County. Photo by Jason Sprouls, August 2019.
national champion American bladdernut
Image 5. Not all tree species grow to be “big”. Believe it or not, this tree is the National Champion American bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) in Page county. Photo by Gary Williamson, June 2015.

growing environment. It is unclear to scientists what specific role genes play in the maximum size of trees and how much of the variability observed in tree size is attributable to genetics alone. Factors in the growing environment are probably a stronger predictor of mature tree size, especially in species that attain gigantic proportions. Arguably the most important environmental factor is moisture, especially when it comes to tree height. Gravitational force counter-acts the suction within xylem cells of stems that pulls water from the soil, making it in increasingly difficult to deliver water to leaves as trees grow taller. For this reason, areas where rainfall is sporadic or the soil dries quickly do not favor extremely tall trees. Gravity also affects trunk growth and crown spread, but in slightly different ways. As trees add height and bulk, gravity causes the tree to strain under its own weight. To support that weight, wood fibers thicken noticeably around the trunk base, creating a buttressed appearance in large trees. Large spreading branches likewise feel the strain of gravity and thicken to support their weight, often shaped in cross-section like a vertical ellipse, akin to a steel I-beam used in construction.

Another environmental factor that influences mature tree size is exposure to inclement weather. Trees on steep, upland slopes or expansive open areas experience greater wind forces that might uproot them or break their trunks. These trees are also more vulnerable to lightning strikes, a common cause of death for veteran trees. It is for these reasons that we typically find the largest trees in bottomlands and deep mountain valleys where the soil is deep and moist and neighboring trees and ridgelines provide protection from wind and lightning. Trees in urban areas can similarly benefit from the sheltering of large buildings and structures nearby.

Perhaps the most important factor for trees getting big is avoiding natural or man-made disturbances that would shorten their lifespan. Unlike animals, trees cannot escape or migrate to avoid harm, but they are not defenseless either. Trees possess physical and chemical adaptations that enable them to tolerate all sorts of trauma—pests, fire, drought, wind. These adaptations arose in response to the natural disturbances that repeatedly challenged multiple generations of a tree species over millennia in a given ecosystem. In our urbanizing landscapes, man-made disturbances often supplant natural disturbances as the cause of big tree mortality. Large trees are often removed because they are incompatible with the land use changes that come with urbanization. They may conflict with overhead or underground utilities, block transportation corridors, or pose a hazard for buildings or outdoor activities. Yet we find many of our biggest trees persisting in urban areas. By intention or by serendipity, big trees come to occupy urban spaces where they either avoid enumerable causes of harm or receive preventive care through concerted efforts of owners and community stewards. As a result, big trees are commonly found in historic districts, parks, college campuses, cemeteries, and urban nature preserves.

The Virginia Big Tree Register

The Virginia Big Tree Register documents the largest specimens—past and present—of tree species found in Virginia. The state coordinator of the Virginia Big Tree Program maintains the register—archiving historical documentation of big trees, reviewing nominations of big trees, and orchestrating 10-year recertifications of big trees. The state coordinator works closely with diverse stakeholders to maintain the register and fulfill the outreach mission of the program. A key partner is the Virginia Department of Forestry, whose county foresters often assist with verifying big tree nominations and recertifying big trees in the register. Another key partner is Trees Virginia, which provides annual funding to hire a student intern at Virginia Tech whom assists the state coordinator with recertifying big trees. Discovering big trees and keeping the big tree register accurate and up-to-date would not be possible without numerous volunteers around the state whom work closely with the big tree program and its partners. For many of them, big tree ‘hunting’ has become a favorite past-time that allows them to enjoy the outdoors and hone their skills in tree identification, measurements, and orienteering.

The Virginia Big Tree Register is available online as a searchable database. The register curates the three largest living specimens of over 400 native and non-native tree species. Historical documentation of some species includes up to ten living or dead specimens. Trees

Virginia Big Trees website screenshot
Image 6. A screenshot of the Virginia Big Trees website, accessible at

that exceed their 10-year recertification timeframe can remain in the register, but are given a legacy tree status and cannot be recognized as state or national champion until their measurements are updated. Each tree record in the register includes photos and information about tree size, location, ownership, and historical or ecological significance. A web map is available for many public and private trees, allowing navigation to the tree using an internet-enabled mobile device. An advanced search feature allows filtered searches by tree location, status, nominator, measurer, or owner. The online register also includes a browse feature for lists of the national champion trees residing in Virginia and the state champions of common native species.

Scoring and Ranking Big Trees

Like many states, Virginia’s big tree register is aligned with the National Register of Champion Trees curated by American Forests, a nationwide forest conservation organization. The state and national registers rank trees using a scoring system based on tree height, trunk girth, and crown spread. Points are awarded as follows:

  • 1 point per foot of tree height

  • 1 point per inch of trunk girth

  • 1/4 point per foot of average crown spread

These points are summed to calculate the big tree score. Trees are ranked based on comparison of scores within a species. At the national level, only certain tree species are eligible for registration. Virginia does not currently restrict species eligibility, but all trees must be at least 13-feet tall and 9.5-inches trunk girth to be eligible for both the state and national registers. Assistance with tree measurements is often available from Extension agents, county foresters, and big tree program volunteers. Details about measuring and scoring big trees are available here.

Anyone may nominate a tree for the state big tree register. A big tree nomination requires tree measurements, photographs, location information, and authorization of the tree owner to register the big tree. Nominations are reviewed by the state coordinator verify the species identification and validate the measurements and

Table 2. 2019 Website activity (

135,344  Page views

15,553    Users

22,139    Sessions

Top-five user origins in Virginia:

city count % of total users
Virginia Beach 974 15
Blacksburg 448 7
Charlottesville 434 7
Midlothian 385 6
Richmond 301 5%
treehunters measuring the national champion water tupelo
Image 7. These dedicated big tree hunters trudge through swamp to measure the crown spread of this National Champion water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) in Greensville county. Photo by Gary Williamson, November 2017.

scoring. The state coordinator will also nominate state champion trees for national champion consideration on behalf of the nominator. Nominations for the state register are accepted year-round through an online reporting form. Rankings in the register are updated annually based on new nominations and reports of recent tree deaths. A registered big tree must be recerti- fied at least once every ten years to verify it is still living and update its measurements and scoring. Details about nominating and registering big trees are available here.

2019 Accomplishments

Ongoing activities of the Virginia Big Tree Program include processing big tree reports and making periodic updates to the Virginia Big Tree Register as new trees are nominated, existing trees are recertified, and old trees die out. The program coordinator works with statewide partners and the student intern to conduct annual recertifications of big trees last measured ten or more years prior. The program coordinator also works closely with American Forests to document Virginia trees as national champions. Seminars and workshops are held throughout the year by the program coordinator and statewide partners to educate the public about big trees and train volunteers to assist with big tree nominations and recertifications. Below are highlights of the accomplishments of the Virginia Big Tree Program in 2019.

Table 3. Big Tree reports during the 2019 calendar year.

323 Total big tree reports

122 New nominations

123 Recertifications

78 Dead trees

299 Total updates to register

101 New nominations

122 Recertifications

76 Dead trees

202 Unique species reports

194 Unique species registrations

Table 4. Big Tree reporters during the 2019 calendar year.

51 Unique tree reporters

84 Tree reports by interns

40 Tree reports by coordinator

Top-three volunteer reporters

48 Ben Blankenship

37 Byron Carmean & Gary Williamson

25 Greg Zell & Davis Camalier

Table 5. List of 2019 National Champions located in Virginia.

Common Name

Latin Name

City or County

Total Points

Fraser fir

Abies fraseri

City of Harrisonburg


Florida maple

Acer floridanum



Amur maple

Acer ginnala




Acer negundo



Striped maple

Acer pensylvanicum



Trilobum red maple

Acer rubrum var. trilobum

Isle of Wight


Trilobum red maple

Acer rubrum var. trilobum

Isle of Wight


Silver maple

Acer saccharinum



Sugar maple

Acer saccharum



Yellow buckeye

Aesculus flava



Painted buckeye

Aesculus sylvatica




Albizia julibrissin

City of Virginia Beach


Alleghany serviceberry

Amelanchier laevis



Devil’s walking stick

Aralia spinosa

Isle of Wight


Eastern baccharis

Baccharis halimifolia

City of Chesapeake


Sweet birch

Betula lenta



Virginia round-leaf birch

Betula uber



Paper mulberry

Broussonetia papyrifera

City of Williamsburg


Water hickory

Carya aquatica



Bitternut hickory

Carya cordiformis




Carya illinoinensis

Isle of Wight


Shellbark hickory

Carya laciniosa



Northern catalpa

Catalpa speciosa



Dwarf hackberry

Celtis tenuifolia

City of Alexandria


Dwarf hackberry

Celtis tenuifolia



Eastern redbud

Cercis canadensis



Eastern redbud

Cercis canadensis



Swamp dogwood

Cornus foemina

Isle of Wight


Pear hawthorn

Crataegus calpodendron

City of Alexandria


Parsley hawthorn

Crataegus marshallii



Dotted hawthorn

Crataegus punctata



Dotted hawthorn

Crataegus punctata



Common persimmon

Diospyros virginiana

City of Suffolk


American beech

Fagus grandifolia

New Kent


Chinese parasoltree

Firmiana simplex

City of Norfolk


Glossy buckthorn

Frangula alnus

City of Lynchburg



Gleditsia triacanthos




Halesia tetraptera var. tetraptera




Hamamelis virginiana



Rose of Sharon

Hibiscus syriacus



Winterberry holly

Ilex verticillata

City of Chesapeake


Black walnut

Juglans nigra



Oval-leaved privet

Ligustrum ovalifolium




Liquidambar styraciflua




Liriodendron tulipifera

City of Chesapeake



Maclura pomifera



Fraser magnolia

Magnolia fraseri




Melia azedarach

City of Petersburg


Evergreen bayberry

Morella caroliniensis

City of Newport News


Evergreen bayberry

Morella caroliniensis

City of Newport News


White mulberry

Morus alba



Water tupelo

Nyssa aquatica



Swamp black tupelo

Nyssa biflora

City of Chesapeake



Ostrya virginiana

City of Chesapeake


Royal paulownia

Paulownia tomentosa




Persea palustris

City of Virginia Beach


Red spruce

Picea rubens



Pond pine

Pinus serotina

City of Virginia Beach


Virginia pine

Pinus virginiana



Virginia pine

Pinus virginiana



Chickasaw plum

Prunus angustifolia



Sweet cherry

Prunus avium




Prunus persica



White oak

Quercus alba



Southern red oak

Quercus falcata



Darlington oak

Quercus hemisphaerica

City of Richmond


Laurel oak

Quercus laurifolia

City of Chesapeake


Laurel oak

Quercus laurifolia

City of Chesapeake


Overcup oak

Quercus lyrata

Isle of Wight


Swamp chestnut oak

Quercus michauxii

City of Virginia Beach


Chinkapin oak

Quercus muehlenbergii



Cherrybark oak

Quercus pagoda

City of Portsmouth


Willow oak

Quercus phellos



Willow oak

Quercus phellos



Willow oak

Quercus phellos

City of Chesapeake


Northern red oak

Quercus rubra



Weeping willow

Salix babylonica



Pussy willow

Salix discolor



Buckthorn bumelia

Sideroxylon lycioides

City of Norfolk


American bladdernut

Staphylea trifolia



Common sweetleaf

Symplocos tinctoria

City of Chesapeake


Japanese tree lilac

Syringa reticulata

City of Richmond


Northern white-cedar

Thuja occidentalis



White basswood

Tilia americana var. heterophylla

City of Radford


Winged elm

Ulmus alata

City of Hopewell



Viburnum prunifolium




Viburnum prunifolium



Hercules’ club

Zanthoxylum clava-herculis




Ziziphus jujuba

City of Williamsburg



Ziziphus jujuba

City of Norfolk


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Publication Date

April 8, 2020