Magazine article American Forests

Empty Thrones

Magazine article American Forests

Empty Thrones

Article excerpt

They are out there. Some may live their entire lives without ever being seen by human eyes. Others may live among us, seen by thousands yet unrecognized, like royalty dressed as paupers. They are the biggest trees of their kind but they cannot lay claim to their rightful throne until someone discovers, measures, and nominates them.

Most of these true kings and queens of the forest are represented by lesser nobility, or even the occasional servant of the court who spends a few surreptitious and gleeful moments on the throne. The National Register of Big Trees lists the biggest known trees and can rarely claim absolute knowledge of the absolute ruler of a given species. We honor these surrogates, just as we honor Olympian gold medalists in spite of the probability that there are faster and stronger people somewhere in the world whose potential remains hidden. But the current Register lists 94 species for which the throne is completely empty. No king. No queen. Not even a naughty page.

Of course, before 1940, when AMERICAN FORESTS initiated the Big Tree Program, all thrones were empty. For the first several decades it was essentially left to nominators to choose which trees needed a champion. Most were native or naturalized species but quite a few ornamentals and hybrids were crowned. In 1980, after adopting Elbert Little Jr.'s Checklist of United States Trees as the authority for which species to include, AMERICAN FORESTS began to print a list of Species Without Champs in each installment of the Register. Over the next 20 years, nominators reduced the number of empty thrones by an average of eight per year, from 257 in 1980, to 93 in 2000. During that period, each successive Register saw a reduction in crownless species with highs of 28 found in 1984, 36 in 1994, and 44 in 2000.

But in 2002, for the first time in Register history, we gained empty thrones and shot up to 99. The 2004 Register established an all-time low of 85, but this year we're back up to 94. Actually, 12 empty thrones in 2004 were filled in 2006, but another 24 species were dethroned and left without a successor.

Upon closer examination, 94 empty thrones isn't that bad. Twenty-four of these were occupied in 2004 but those champs have since either died (17), couldn't be found (2), had been misidentified (2), or were too small to be a tree (3). Crucially, none had potential successors waiting in the files of AMERICAN FORESTS for their chance at glory. Until the current Register came out (the one you are holding), big tree hunters didn't know to look for a replacement. So a small number of temporarily empty thrones are to be expected.

With two years between published Registers, you might also expect the more unfamiliar or rare species to stay on the empty thrones list for a few rounds before a tree is nominated. Of the 94 empty thrones, 37 were once occupied. Most had a crowned tree within the last decade but a royal Pensacola hawthorn was last recognized in 1982. The last Fallax pinyon pines king finished its reign in 1978; the guava's throne has been empty since 1971.

Another nine empty thrones were formerly filled but not with true monarchs. The species they represented-like American snowbell, Georgia holly, and Florida crossopetalum-infrequently attain the stature of trees. In the 1990s the philosophy at AMERICAN FORESTS was that any specimen, no matter how small, could be the champion if was the biggest one reported at that time. Later, after a number of twiggy things were crowned, it was decided that a specimen should meet accepted standards for being a tree-at least 9.5 inches in circumference and 13 feet tall. After all, this is not the National Register of Big Trees and Shrubs.

This means that, out of 94 currently empty thrones, 57 species have never had a true champion, and 48 have never even had a nominee. Out of a possible 826 species and varieties in the Register, that's not too bad. But the goal has always been to have a full roster of big trees so here is some information to help you find a lost champion, and get yourself in the record books. …

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