Arkansas takes pride in its trees. The Natural State even has a hall of fame paying tribute to the largest specimens of over 100 species.
Arkansas Champion Trees is an honor roll curated by the Arkansas Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Division. The distinguished specimens are chosen based on a formula involving three measurements: trunk circumference, tree height and average spread of the leafy crown.
March is a prime month to celebrate these trees, as awesome in real life as the mythical Treebeard was in “Lord of the Rings.” That’s because March 20 marks the date of Arkansas Arbor Day, which gets a month’s jump on April 28’s National Arbor Day.
Legendary Northwoods lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his pal, Babe the Blue Ox, never made it as far south as Arkansas. So, our Champion Trees were spared Paul’s mighty ax. Three species (American holly, red mulberry, Nuttall oak) in Arkansas have grown large enough to rank as overall champions for the United States. A fourth (water tupelo) is a U.S. co-champion on a nationwide roster that tallies more than 500 species.
The State of Arkansas Agriculture, Champion Trees webpage lists the state’s prize trees alphabetically, from American basswood to yellowwood. The details include locations and owners. About three-fourths of the trees stand on private property. The rest can be found on public lands, such as national forests, state parks and wildlife management areas.
“This program is a success because it allows any Arkansans, from schoolchildren to professional arborists and foresters, to nominate a tree they think may be the largest of its species.” — Harold Fisher
The campus of Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville hosts champions in two species: blackgum and eastern white pine. Burns Park in North Little Rock is site of the No. 1 black willow. The top red buckeye stands along the access road to Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock. Historic Washington State Park has the biggest southern catalpa. A co-champion sugar maple can be seen in Fayetteville’s Confederate Cemetery.
Most listings include one or more photographs of the champion, often with the owner posing next to it — emphasizing its accolade-winning size by contrast with the human figure. In a few instances, the owner has added a touch of whimsy by wrapping arms a little way around the great trees.
Urban Forestry Partnership Coordinator Harold Fisher, who manages the project says, “This program is a success because it allows any Arkansans, from schoolchildren to professional arborists and foresters, to nominate a tree they think may be the largest of its species. That helps cultivate a sentiment of ownership, whether the champion is growing on private or public land. Most private owners are thrilled by the honor.”
The program, like the trees themselves, is ever-growing and ever-changing.
“Our champion trees program began in the late 1970s,” Fisher says. “Since then, we’ve often had larger trees displace previous champs. There have been a few instances where a new champion was named within a week of a previous champion having been declared.”
About 20 champion applications are submitted in a typical year. Fisher explains that “if measurements are not included in a nomination, then Forestry Division personnel will always go out to obtain them. Sometimes nominations do include measurements taken by the owner. If those indicate the tree will be close to or larger than the current champion in that species, Forestry Division staff members will go out to verify the measurements.”
With nearly 3 million acres in its three national forests (Ozark, Ouachita, St. Francis), Arkansas remains a widely forested state. Fisher cites the important role played by Hot Springs artist Linda Williams Palmer in promoting the champion trees.
“She was so inspired by the program that she created a collection of artwork featuring large, colored pencil drawings to artistically interpret some of the trees,” he says. “Her work has captured in intricate detail and splendor the trees she depicts, so that even as they age, their memory does not.”
Palmer’s art is pictured in “Champion Trees of Arkansas,” a book published in 2016.
Pride resides with all the owners, present and past, of Arkansas Champion Trees. That’s true even for those species of lesser stature. A sparkleberry tree in Washington County stands tallest among its kin at only 10 feet high. A pagoda dogwood in Benton County is a biggest-circumference champ at merely 11 inches, easy to wrap an arm around.
A champion is a champion, so long as it measures up.
Arkansas Champion Trees by the Numbers
Applying the Forestry Division’s measurement index, the state’s overall champion tree is a bald cypress in Arkansas County. No. 2 is a water tupelo in White County, followed by an American sycamore in Crittenden County.
A pignut hickory is the tallest champion, towering 145 feet in White County. Second tallest is a loblolly pine in Howard County at 144 feet. Third is a black willow in Pulaski County at 134 feet.
Largest in circumference is the Arkansas County bald cypress at 523 inches, followed by the White County water tupelo at 451 inches and a red mulberry in Ashley County at 305 inches.
Crown Spread Champion
The title for average spread of leafy crown is held by a southern red oak in Clark County at 134 feet. Second largest provider of shade is a Yell County eastern cottonwood at 131 feet, followed by a cherrybark oak in Perry County spanning 129 feet.
To find locator maps and read more, visit the Champion Trees webpage.