Big Trees of the Eastern Forest, Past and Present

By Robert T. Leverett Gazette Contributing Writer

There are many reasons why people like trees, but big trees in particular have always stimulated human imagination. Size matters. Hulking forms casting twisted shadows vie with arrow-straight trunks of the forest cathedral. These are contrasting images, but equally iconic. In honoring the giants, some employ the camera. Others prefer canvas or pen. My greatest satisfaction comes from measuring big trees. It’s been a lifelong passion.

When people think of exceptionally large trees, Massachusetts doesn’t readily come to mind—nor, for that matter, does anywhere else in the East. Giant sequoias, redwoods and trees that top tropical rainforest canopies fit our perception of ultimate tree size. By comparison, our eastern species are bantamweights, but in the 1600s and 1700s, romantic accounts of the virgin woodlands of the eastern seaboard stressed the abundance of immense trees. How large were these trees? Could today’s trees, if left alone, grow to the sizes of their pre-colonial progenitors? Such questions are the daily grist of a dedicated group of tree researchers and measurers who form the Eastern Native Tree Society (ENTS).

It is impossible to know just how large eastern trees of yesteryear grew. Bona fide records are scattered and anecdotal accounts notoriously unreliable. We do have old photographs of big trees felled for lumber, but reliable measurements are in short supply, and we can’t appeal to what commonly grows now for a confirmation. Most of our woodlands have been cut multiple times, and often for the choice trees, leaving little for tree enthusiasts to cheer about. Still, there are individual trees scattered across the countryside that demonstrate what eastern trees can achieve if left to grow. What are some examples? We begin with the American sycamore, Plantanus occidentalis, a species known for its size.

The Sunderland, Pine Plains (N.Y.) and Pinchot (Conn.) sycamores are examples of northeastern trees that push growth limits for the species. The largest of the three in terms of girth is the Pinchot. This behemoth measures 27.9 feet around at 4.5 feet above its base, which equates to nearly 9 feet in diameter (the Sunderland is 8 and Pine Plains, 8.6). But consider two historical accounts. George Washington, as a surveyor in the 1700s, measured a giant sycamore in Pennsylvania with a diameter of 14 feet, and in the 1800s a sycamore in Mount Carmel, Ill., grew to a thickness of 20 feet, measured at about three feet above the ground.

How about limb spread, another attribute of size? The average crown spread for the Sunderland sycamore is 141 feet; that for the Pinchot, 150.5 feet. The latter is probably close to the maximum for the biggest sycamores of the past. The species drops limbs when older, so extremely long life does not ensure greater limb spread.

As for height, the Pine Plains sycamore is the tallest of our three northeastern giants at 117 feet. But using lasers, we have measured sycamores in the southern Appalachian forest at over 160 feet, near the species’ height maximum, past or present. Because trees reach most of their height at younger ages, today’s more youthful trees may rival their ancestors—an unexpected hope when ENTS began its big tree mission in the early 1990s.

So much for the sycamore. But what of other species? Tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera), also called tulip poplar and yellow poplar, in the southern Appalachians are approaching the historical heights cited for the species. Using a technique called light detection and ranging, we located a tulip tree in the Great Smoky Mountains last year and measured it at an astounding 187.5 feet. It becomes the tallest accurately measured native hardwood in the United States. By comparison, a few tulip trees in the distant past may have exceeded 200 feet, though we can’t prove it.

What is the tallest of all native eastern species? In New England, we have measured standing white pines at 168.9 feet and, in Pennsylvania, at 184.2 feet—the tallest individual tree of any species in the Northeast. A white pine in the Great Smoky Mountains stands 189 feet tall, making it tops in the East. But a few white pines in colonial times appear to have exceeded 200 feet, with a very few reaching as much as 220.

However, we do not know how accurately those trees were measured.

The conclusion that we in ENTS have reached is that there are more large and/or tall trees growing in the East these days than previously believed, and while today’s trees may fall short of the pre-colonial giants, there is still much to satisfy lovers of big trees. Whether it’s for their ecological value, their historic significance or simply their sheer grandeur, these trees offer much to celebrate.

Robert T. Leverett, co-founder and executive director of the Eastern Native Tree Society, and co-founder and president of Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest, is the coauthor of The Sierra Club Guide to the Ancient Forests of the Northeast.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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