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In Praise of Great Trees – Shumard’s Oak (Quercus Shumardii)

For the past four years, Conservation Montgomery has sponsored big tree tours led by Joe Howard, founder of the Montgomery County Champion Tree Program. Joe has taught our members to value noble old trees. His dedication is infectious. When he approaches a tree to measure it or visit, he greets it by gently touching the trunk. He often cleans invasive vegetation around the site of a champion and picks up any litter. Because of Joe and his colleagues on the Montgomery County Forestry Board, a biannual Register of Champion trees is published to keep track of the locations of our largest specimens. Thanks to the Big Tree Program, I’ve begun to go out alone or with tree loving colleagues on visits to see, photograph and often just sit with or lean against some of these giants. I imagine the life they’ve led and the history that they’ve witnessed.

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Montgomery County is home to the Maryland State Champion Shumard Oak. It lives close to the Potomac River, just downstream of Lock 7 at Glen Echo in the C&O Canal National Historic Park. Shumard oaks are native to North America and known by several alternate names: swamp red oak, southern red oak, spotted oak, Schneck oak. They are strong, long-lived, grow quickly and can reach heights of 150 feet. Their leaves remain green long into autumn then turn a deep orange-red. Considered a lowland tree, Shumard oaks grow scattered among other hardwoods in moist, well-drained soils associated with streams and rivers. They grow moderately fast and produce acorns every two to four years which are used for food by wildlife.

The minimum seed-bearing age for a Shumard oak is 25 years and optimum production is about 50 years. It makes a handsome shade tree and has been successfully grown in urban areas where air pollution, compacted soil and poor drainage are common. It was named after Dr. Benjamin F. Shumard, a physician who gave up medicine to study geology and paleontology, worked on geological surveys in several states and served as state geologist of Texas in the mid-1800’s.

The Shumard at Lock 7 is a magnificent specimen with a current circumference is 22’8” or 272” (measured at 4.5 feet above the ground). Its height was recently measured at 133’, and its spread was 125’ for a total score of 436. Total scores are calculated by taking the circumference (in inches) + height of tree (in feet) + 25% of the average crown spread (in feet). The national champion Shumard is in Anna, IL, and scores 448 points, only 12 more than our tree. Also, as of 2014 there is a co-champion in Clay City, KY, at 447 points. If trees are within five points of each other they are considered co-champions. Ours is a Maryland State Champion. It is difficult to photograph a tree of its size located within a forest and is much easier in winter when trees are generally leafless. To find our champion, go to Lock 7, cross the towpath from the lock house and walk downstream about 1/4 mile on the path along the River. It stands just beside the footpath, has three trunks and a widely-spread base displaying the inevitable nicks and scratches of a long life. Be sure touch the bark in greeting and sit beside it for a while.

Written by Ginny Barnes, Vice- Chair