Dutchess County's Champion Trees May 6 2017
Posted: Sun May 14, 2017 6:20 pm
In the last couple years I've watched a number of trees from Dutchess County supplant previous chamions on NY's Champion Tree list. One of these, a Red Hickory, even ascended to the National Champion listings. Most of these Dutchess County trees have been attached to the names Amy Parella and Dan McKenna. As it turns out, both of these tree-hunters practice Horticulture at Bard College in Annadale-on-Hudson, where Amy is the Horticulture Supervisor and Arboretum Director. She was enthusiastic about the idea of getting Cadre verification for the trees up there, and also mentioned that Dan had become quite a measuring enthusiast. I contacted Dan next and we worked out plans for May 6. I looped in my photographer friend, Brian Kelley, who's making a photo archive of National Champion Trees for American Forests, and up we went.Dan had devised a schedule for the day to visit multiple state champion trees, the National Champion Red Hickory, and a few additional National Champion candidates. For each tree, Dan already had the measurements he had made, as well as the more "official" measurements made by the regional DEC forester to verify for the state listing. On that basis, I have to give Dan some serious props: his height measurements were almost always within just a few feet of the correct figure, even when the DEC measurements had wild tangent errors (130 feet for a sweetgum less than 90 feet tall, for example), but the real kicker is that he did all of his measurements using one of these: Dan did his homework. The first site we visited was the FDR Estate National Historic Site in Hyde Park. When first arriving at the site I scoped a slender, rising Sycamore just behind the parking lot to >112, and then we took a short detour to a paved trail the descends beneath some tall young white pines (tallest quickly measured to 128') and a very nice Black Maple (103', tallest I've measured). This area has a lot of Black Maple, so it was good to be able to compare the differences in their features in such proximity. We proceeded to the primary tree of interest- a Horse Chestnut growing right along the road, just inside the historic stone wall. This squat specimen has a top significantly offset from the main trunk, and Dan pointed out the spot on the ground where he had set his baseline in order to minimize tangent error, which is why his measurement was in fact very close to the actual height. My final figures put the tree at 250.2 points, surpassing the current 241-point champion in Montana. Just a few hundred feet up the road was an enormous Sycamore, just a hair under 20'cbh. Next we headed just a short drive up the road to the Vanderbilt Estate. This site is known to NTS as a serious big-tree site but with sparse documentation, and I hope that Elijah, Dan and I can get together to give it a full accounting in time. On this visit, the large open-grown trees on the main lawn were the focus. First and foremost was Dan's candidate for National Champion Honey Locust. Already the listed State Champion, I was surprised to find that this large-crowned tree had actually been under-measured for height. My measurements put this tree at 317.1 points, an increase of 9 points over the DEC measurement. This tree has a huge, strangely shaped base. Not unlike Elijah's cottonwood in Moravia, the fluting of this trunk leaves room to wonder about the tree's status as a single or double. If I had to place a bet, I'd suggest that it's a single pith at ground level but split into two leaders that have twisted around each other and continued wood growth has raised the point of fusion to about 25 feet off the ground. Reaction to wind forces against the two leaders has created major buttressing. We passed the Ginkgo on the lawn, a fat tree that gets a lot of tourist attention, on our way to see the State Champion Hemlock. I do have to say that this is the strangest hemlock I have ever encountered. Or the strangest hemlocks, as may likely be the case- this is practically a small grove, with very unusual fusion occurring. As the original nominator, Dan, having again done his homework, made his measurements strictly for the main central stem, excluding the other trunks from his crown spread measurement, and wrapping the narrowest point below a bulge created by lateral limbs that come out of the main trunk about 5.5 feet above the base. Both Dan's and the DEC Forester's height measurements were in this case actually lower than the actual height as well; in this case the culprit was clearly a small, sneaky top nested behind the more obvious top and nearly 8 feet taller than what appeared to be the highest twig. The top was also set back from the base, reducing the tangent height, but this was harder to assess for this tree. Next we proceeded to Montgomery Place, another former estate open to the public as a nature preserve and now owned by Bard College. The narrative goes that when Montgomery purchased the land from the native peoples, a stipulation of the agreement was that he leave sections of the forest considered sacred in their unaltered state. As a consequence, some portions of the Montgomery Place forest may be true primary forest. This is definitely a site for further exploration, and Dan mentioned a number of sizeable trees that we did not have time to get to. From the parking lot, the first thing I scoped out was an emergent white pine crown- roughing out 128.5' from the highest visible point to a reference point near the base of its trunk. Moving into the forest, the reading from the base of the trunk to the reference point was 2', for a height of at least 130.5' (probably taller with a more careful measurement). Examining the aerial images after the fact I am quite sure that this pine, while the tallest tree I measured at Montgomery on this trip, is just the tip of the iceberg there. A thin nearby hemlock rose to just under 110', one of several with adelgid-afflicted thin brush crowns. Many old, luxuriant white oaks, tuliptrees, and other hardwoods carried on a craggy canopy into the distance. We crossed the lawn to another section of forest. This section contains more nonnatives, a section of planted white pines, and some earlier-succession species like Bigtooth Aspen now in late maturity, indicating a higher level of disturbance- but receding now into the past. Right at the edge of the woods stood the State Champion Sweetgum, listed as 130 feet tall. Dan's personal measurement was rather more modest, unsurprisingly, and closer to the actual height which was 90 feet at best. I didn't even write it down. My area on Staten Island being the stronghold of Sweetgum in NY state, I was simply that unimpressed. We passed under a twin-trunked copper beech that was in fact quite impressive, with considerable volume in its twin columnar trunks and a compact crown, and then Dan pointed out the state champion Cucumber Magnolia on the right. This tree is a clear multistem, and its listed height of 114 feet is again significantly taller than its actual height. Dan's own measurements were again not far off. It was nice to find some petals on the ground. After measuring a very impressive red oak nearby ( someblocky bark suggests perhaps a bit of hybridization) we continued down the trail (Silverbells in the understory, a novelty for me) to the National Champion Bigtooth Aspen Candidate. This is an impressive specimen, splitting into two leaders partway up and curving into the canopy. There are several other large ones further back in the woods (and a number of fallen ones), all growing just downhill from an impressive stand of plantation white pines in the 110s-120s (the Norway Spruce in the measurement table was also near these, and had a more compact foliage form than most NS I'm used to, perhaps a different seed source? These plantings are relatively old). Getting enough spokes for the crown spread in the surrounding forest was difficult but worth it: this 240.7 point tree handily surpasses the listed National Co-Champs. While Brian was setting up his camera for a portrait of the aspen, Dan and I wandered off-trail down the hill to examine some tall hemlocks. The initially tall-looking tree turned out not to be that impressive, but another tree a little further downhill surprised me by exceeding 120'. Moving down the slope away from the trail, the forest appears to become more intact and disturbance-free. Hemlocks all show serious adelgid damage. Last we headed up to Bard College, to see the National Champion Red Hickory. This is the only champion tree in question that Dan had not measured; learning that it had been made National Champion was what prompted his own interest in measuring trees. The listed 138' height was the biggest question in my mind. As it turns out, this tree is located in a small patch of woods just outside the college's new science building. This is the most impressive hickory I have ever met! It is a massive column of dark, deeply cut bark supporting a beautiful crown that emerges above the main canopy of youngish tulips. I enjoyed the reversal of usual canopy roles. Nonetheless, its true height is just 123.8'. This discrepancy, along with a listing error in the American Forests listing that doubles its crown spread points, its points total drops from 289 to 261.8, which puts its champion status in jeopardy (though as Will points out, there are many un-nominated trees in the smokies that would easily dwarf this specimen). Dan mentioned that he's found a tree nearby which, by his own measurements, nearly matches this specimen's old inflated points total. Since he's borrowing one of my Bushnells, hopefully soon he can confirm with a sine measurement, and will begin posting his Hudson Valley findings to the board. Dan showed us a few more interesting trees around the Bard Campus and adjacent Tivoli Bays (full of beautiful Ash that are sadly declining); perhaps he can do them more justice in a future post.