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Illinois hunting and fishing

This massive white oak is an Illinois champion tree and is located in Putnam County northwest of Putnam County Junior High School near McNabb.

Illinois Big Tree Register

July 19, 2009 at 03:02 AM

Illinois hunting and fishing

Nominate a tree

Think you know the location of a champion tree?

Click here to learn more about the Illinois Big Tree Register and to find nomination forms.

Both the nominator and the owner of a certified Big Tree receive a certificate of recognition. The registry is limited to trees native to the state. The deadline for submissions each year is Aug. 1.



When the wind whistles or ice accumulates on branches, homeowners often face the sobering truth that not all trees are created equal.

But you don’t need downed power lines or a yard full of soft maple branches to learn that.

The same message is conveyed in a much happier way by the Illinois Big Tree Register. Since 1962 the Department of Natural Resources and the University of Illinois have kept track of the Prairie State’s largest trees.

The current register lists 125 state champions and six national champs. Many are located in southern Illinois, including the state’s tallest tree, a 165-foot-tall northern red oak in Dixon Springs State Park.

But the fact seven champions hail from Cook County proves impressive specimens can be found anywhere in Illinois. Really, that’s the purpose of the registry, which was developed to encourage people to search for record trees and to gain an appreciation for our forest resources.

In that regard the registry has been a success. Many entries were nominated by citizens or landowners — people like Jim Ream of Kewanee. A retired tree trimmer, Ream is responsible for nominating eight of 13 champions from the Peoria area.

Peoria County’s lone entry is a 22-foot-tall alternateleaf dogwood that may or may not still be standing in the woods of Forest Park Nature Center. Tazewell County has a top paper birch, Mason County boasts the best black hickory, LaSalle claims a champion Washington hawthorn and in Galva you can find the reigning slippery elm.

Bureau County also has five top trees, including the largest white pine in Illinois — a 97-foot-tall specimen in Oakland Cemetery near Princeton.

Arguably the most impressive of them all, though, is a massive white oak located across the road from Putnam County Junior High School near McNabb. The white oak stands alone, towering over a gravel lane leading to Richard Ashdown’s house, the second-oldest home in Putnam County.
Log on to Google Earth or any other aerial satellite view and you can find what looks like a small forest but is actually a lone oak that has grown massive over the centuries.

“That’s my favorite tree,” said Ream, who has two pictures of the oak in his living room. “It’s just in a perfect setting, a big, open area that really shows it off.”

Ream first discovered the champion white oak in 1982 while trimming trees nearby. “I saw it and thought, ‘My, that looks like an awful big tree,’” he recalled.

His hunch was correct. Though it stands just 65 feet tall, the huge white oak has a trunk circumference of 22.2 feet and an average crown spread of 105 feet. All three measurements are used to determine champion trees.

By extrapolating ages from other trees he has felled, Ream guesstimates Ashdown’s white oak dates back to 1730.

For the past few years, Ashdown has transplanted saplings from under the shade of his champion. “I used to try acorns, but the survival rate was very poor,” he said. “Saplings do better. I plant them in my garden for a year and then move them to the timber.”

Not all champion trees are still in such good shape.

Illinois hunting and fishing

Towering over the house of Shirley Slover of Kewanee is an 85-foot tall champion black maple (pictured above and below) that has felt numerous chainsaws over the years.

Illinois hunting and fishing

“My folks built this house in 1947 and the lady that lived on the corner (Lucille Mason), well she’s passed on now, but she said it was a big tree when she was little,” Slover said.

Some day, that maple will need to come down — a fact of life for record trees. Unlike record fish or record whitetail deer, trees grow and die after joining the registry. Ream has already lost a hackberry and a European alder that were national champions.

But Ashdown’s white oak is the sylvan version of Muhammad Ali. Since first winning the title in 1983, the oak has twice been unseated by rivals. Both times the tree rallied to regain its crown.

“And it’s still growing,” Ashdown said. “The drip line keeps coming out a little farther each year.”

Illinois hunting and fishing

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