All trees are unique, but not every tree has what it takes to be a champion. Only the largest tree of each species can lay claim to this prestigious title.
What is a champion tree? The Missouri Department of Conservation and American Forests set the ground rules. Points are awarded for circumference, crown spread, and height. Missouri state champion trees must be Missouri-native species.
The Missouri Botanical Garden has a champion in its canopy—and a newly-crowned title tree at its Litzsinger Road Ecology Center.
Our tour of champions starts with the white basswood (Tilia americana var. heterophylla) near the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum. It picked up the title after being nominated by horticulturist Chip Tynan in 2009. The white basswood nabbed a total score of 266 points, more than any other tree of this species in the entire country at the time. A larger white basswood was discovered in Virginia in 2018, but ours is still a state champion.
The Garden’s other champion is a boxelder (Acer Negundo) at the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center. This newcomer was crowned in 2018, with a height of 46 feet and a spread of 65 feet. Boxelder trees are suckering, fast-growing, weak-wooded, and a host for the boxelder bug, giving them the reputation of being weedy or trash trees. But staff at Litzsinger Road Ecology Center say this champion “is determined to wear the crown proudly and let all its progeny known they too can become heroes.”
Champions come and go, as is the case with a Garden possumhaw (Ilex decidua). This relative of the holly once reigned supreme over other members of its species. However, a larger possumhaw was discovered on private property and our tree was dethroned in 2015. New champions are crowned all the time as larger specimens are discovered and submitted, or when reigning champion trees are felled by age or other factors.
There are several more champion trees in the St. Louis area. Tower Grove Park is home to Missouri’s largest bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata), and swamp privet (Forestiera acuminata). Forest Park has a state champion red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) and eastern witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). Bellefontaine Cemetery in north St. Louis has a state champion shingle oak (Quercus imbricaria) and red mulberry (Morus rubra).
To search for a champion tree near you, check out the updated list from the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Cassidy Moody – Senior Digital Media Specialist