The champions of Moore County
By Tom Lillie • Photographs by John Gessner
This and above Photograph: Turkey oak (Quercus laevis)
Moore County has what it takes to produce champions. The environment is ideal for building endurance and dominating the competition. Four individuals currently living in the Sandhills achieved state, national or world recognition without ever leaving the very spot where they took root and blossomed. They did not seek this recognition. In fact, they were discovered by local admirers and nominated for the crown.
The individuals I am referring to are trees. Three are famous for their size, and one is legendary for its age.
When it comes to size, a tree’s height, trunk circumference and crown spread are used to establish its position in arboreal prominence. The nonprofit group American Forests has the final say. A different process is used to document and recognize the oldest trees. Scientists called dendrochronologists extract a core sample with a special drill bit and count the growth rings to determine a tree’s age.
The nation’s largest turkey oak (Quercus laevis) stands at the intersection of N.C. 211 and state Road 2077 in Aberdeen. Worn and weathered, the tree is 64 feet tall with a circumference of 126 inches and a crown spread of 41 feet. Most motorists drive past the deciduous standout every day without knowing they are within sight of a titleholder, but news of plans to widen the road put the tree in the spotlight. The State Department of Transportation considered various alternatives, including rerouting the road to avoid the tree, but decided removal is the only viable option.
DOT is in the process of acquiring the necessary right of way for the project, including land occupied by the champion turkey oak. As a mitigation measure, the DOT will remove and preserve a 10-foot section of the tree for documentation and study. This champion sustained decades of automobile exhaust and inclement weather, but it will be dethroned by human progress and the chainsaw.
Left: Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii)
Right: Florida maple (Acer barbatum)
Our next pair of champions are about 15 miles north of the turkey oak on property near Carthage. Both trees are recognized by the North Carolina Forest Service as the largest member of their species in the state. One is a 105-foot Florida maple (Acer barbatum) with a circumference of 113 inches and a crown spread of 70 feet. The other is a Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii) that measures 142 feet tall, 237 inches in circumference, and has a 110-foot crown spread. The future of the Florida maple and Shumard oak is relatively certain, since both grow on property that is managed by the Three Rivers Land Trust.
Another Moore County tree of special note is the oldest living longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) in the world. It sprouted in 1548 and became firmly rooted in the sandy soil of what is now the Boyd Tract of Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve in Southern Pines. During 474 years of existence, this multi-centenarian somehow managed to escape predation, disease, recurring fires, storms, the ax, the chain saw, resin gathering and growth of a nation. Its age was determined by scientists from the University of North Carolina Greensboro in 2007. Each year, the state pays special tribute to the elderly evergreen by hosting an annual birthday celebration called Party for the Pine, complete with cake, games and other activities.
Left & Right: Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris)
Last year had special meaning for the champion trees of Moore County and all native trees in North Carolina. The Department of Parks and Recreation designated 2022 the Year of the Tree. Displays and educational material recognized the importance of all trees to the natural environment. Details about champion trees can be found at https://www.americanforests.org/champion-trees/ and the North Carolina database of champion trees is posted online at https://www.ncforestservice.gov/Urban/nc_champion_big_trees_database_search.asp. PS
Tom Lillie is a military veteran and resident of Pinehurst. He received his Ph.D. in medical entomology from the University of Florida and served 26 years as a medical entomologist in the U.S. Air Force.