In Search of New Hampshire's Biggest Trees

Jan 27, 2017

New Hampshire is a state known for its trees. In fact, the Granite State is the second most forested state in the country. Some trees are green, some are white; some are small, and others are . . . mighty. An organization of tree enthusiasts has been finding and documenting New Hampshire’s biggest trees since the 1950’s. 

It’s cold and icy but that’s not enough to stop Tom Howe from hunting for big trees.

“So we’re going to cut into the left here, and I see our whopper Green Ash…”

He lumbers down a trail in Sandwich, trusting his spikey footwear to bring him to this fabled tree.

“So this is the big Ash right here!”

A massive trunk comes into view, reaching high into the sky and putting its neighbors to shame. It has thick, cracked bark like a leather coat worn from the winter.

“it’s the one with the kink at the bottom.”

Howe first noticed some big trees on this land in November, when he was surveying it for his job with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. As a little Christmas Day expedition, Howe brought his whole family back to scout for champion trees. Yes…although the trees don’t know it, they are part of a state-wide competition. It’s run by the New Hampshire Big Tree program, which has documented the state’s green giants since 1950. Howe thinks he has a winner. 

“Nine and a half feet.” “Nine and a half feet?” “Yes.”

Carrol County Forester Wendy Scribner and NH Big Tree Volunteer Kamal Nath have come along to size up Howe’s tree. They check the circumference and the height. They also measure the crown spread, which is how far the branches stretch out from side to side. All these factors will help them determine if this Green Ash is a state champ. But first they have to prove that it really is a Green Ash.

“So if you’re wondering what the extra tool is I have along, it’s a .22 rifle.”

Howe squares his rifle on a nearby tree and aims for a branch. The idea is that if Howe can shoot off a live one, he’ll be able to identify the species of tree by something called a “leaf scar.” Wendy Scribner helps explain.

“Where that leaf attaches to the twig, it leaves a large scar when it falls off in the fall.”

Although Howe’s method for seeing the scars is unique —and ultimately fails—observing little features like these is one of the missions of the New Hampshire Big Tree Program.

“It really gets people to appreciate and look closer about what’s around them.”

That’s Mary Tebo Davis of UNH Cooperative Extension, which runs the Big Tree Program. She says trees are nurseries for wildlife, fungi, and plants. People aren’t always aware of how much life a tree can support.

“By getting involved in searching for big trees, just helps to add to that awareness.”

The New Hampshire Big Tree Program is part of a national initiative run by American Forests. Anyone can nominate a tree. And once a year, the state submits its biggest trees to the national program to see if they’ve got any country-wide victors. Out of 700 trees on the national register, New Hampshire currently holds the title for 11.

“Hundred and fourteen inches!”

Back in the snowy Sandwich forest, Big Tree volunteers finish their final measurements. Although Scribner will have to confirm the species from her microscope at home, it looks like Howe’s find is shaping up to be a state champion.

And as for the live branch, Volunteer Nath says as they pack up, Howe gave it his best shot.