The Biggest Black Birch

We needed to remeasure the incredible shrinking tree. Last fall, our team of measurers from Hillsborough County went out to measure our national champion sweet birch (called black birch around here). The circumference measurement they submitted was smaller than when the tree was measured in 1988. How could that happen? We had to find out. American Forests, keeper of the National Big Tree List, tries to update its list every 10 years.

I had just taken over the volunteer position of N.H. Big Tree Coordinator. One beautiful day in early spring, Mary Jane Sheldon, who maintains our database, my husband Gordon, and I set out to find the tree. After a sandwich and some map consulting at the New Boston general store, we ended up having to ask some kids where to find the road that would take us to the big black birch.

We stopped at the address given in our records and were met by a lovely woman who came to investigate the commotion caused by her dog’s greeting our team. She directed us to a far corner of her field and told us the tree we were looking for was just inside the woods.

So off across the field we went with our bag of tools: a 100-foot tape measure, the clinometer we use to measure the height of the tree, and the GPS (global positioning system). Trying to find the same tree again after 10 or more years can be difficult. Landmarks change, owners move, phone numbers and addresses get changed. We hoped that GPS coordinates will help solve that problem in the future.

Toward the end of the field we scanned the tree line and saw nothing spectacular. But as soon as we stepped inside the woods and looked to the right as instructed, there it was!

As a novice, I find it difficult to identify the species of big trees because most of the parts used to do itthe leaves, twigs, and budsare 50 to 100 feet above my head. I was explaining this to UNH Cooperative Extension Forest Resources Educator Phil Auger while taking his Tree Identification workshop, foolishly mentioning that the bark looks the same on all species of big trees. He smiled and said, “That's like telling me the Beetles sound just like Beethoven!”

But this time we knew we’d found our champion birch without needing those identifying clues. It was the biggest tree around. It must have been growing on that stone wall for hundreds of years.

The stone wall turned out to be one of the problems. The tree straddled it. The Big Tree rules specify taking the “circumference at breast height” at about four and a half  feet. “Breast height” was a foot higher on the other side of the tree.

We immediately saw another problem. Picture the trunk of a tree as a human body. The roots are the legs. Where they start to flare out from the trunk is like the hips flaring out from the waist. Then think of a long waist up to where the arms or branches leave the body. This particular tree had normal legs and arms, but it also had two breasts, one in front, one in back!

The two bulges were right where the tape measure should go around. This meant we had to find a spot on the trunk under the bulges and above the root flare. Doing this, we measured 165 inches. Eeeek! Even smaller than the measurement done in the fall. Moving the tape up to include part of the bumps, we got the same 170-inch measurement as the fall team. But the original 182-inch measurement remains a mystery.

Would the smaller measurement eliminate this New Hampshire tree from the National Register? No matter, I had to send the current accurate measurement to American Forests. Months passed before we heard the status of our latest measurement. Finally, in July I got an email stating that the tree is still the largest specimen of its kind in the nation.

The new roster from National Forests will come out in 2008. The Granite State has two other champs and two pending. You can check out the New Hampshire list of Big Trees at Information on the national program is available at

If you know of a big tree, put a tape around it at breast height (watch out for those bumps), and check out our website. If your measurement comes close to the circumference of the current Big Tree of that species, email me at P.S. If there is no listing for your county, your tree is an automatic champ!

By Carolyn Enz Page, Community Tree Steward

UNH Cooperative Extension