Friday, May 25, 2012

World's Champion Big-leaf Maple Topples

Acer macrophyllum

I'm a year older than I was at this time last year, and so are you. But we were not supposed to be here at all, if you'll recall: the world was declared to end last May 21st, 2011 at 6 PM. I chose that morning to visit the champion "Big-leaf Maple" near the Oregon coast, then I would hurry back to weep and gnash teeth with my family. Obviously our demise was rescheduled, so I wrote an article about my maple search in the Maple Society Newsletter, Autumn 2011. Here, then, is Maple Rapture, with a few additional photos of Acer macrophyllum.

The fallen champion Big-leaf maple

Maple Rapture

The world’s largest maple, at 200 years of age, crashed to the ground in a March, 2011 windstorm. The giant “Big-leaf Maple” stood in a private field near the town of Jewell, Oregon, and was larger than any tree in the Family Sapindaceae, which includes Acer negundo, itself a huge tree, especially in California.

The venerable Big-leaf giant was 103 feet tall with a canopy spread of 112 feet. The trunk was almost 12 feet in diameter, and it scored 664 points on a champion tree measuring system.

Frankly, I was embarrassed that I wasn’t aware the champion maple was only a one-hour drive from where I live and where I have grown over a million maples. Oregon has 15 other tree species that are world champions, but first I had to pay respects to the fallen maple champion.

On Saturday, May 21, 2011, hoping for sunny weather, I headed west, toward the Pacific Ocean. I couldn’t wait any longer because the world was going to end that day, at 6 p.m., or so claimed a southern preacher. The end of the world attracted much attention (at least in the USA) and millions were spent to advertise it. A “rapture” was to follow, but only 200,000 souls would be spared, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be on the to-save list. Well, I’d have my own rapture then, a “maple rapture.” So, off to Jewell, to find and photograph the tree, then make it home in time to say goodbye to my family before 6 p.m.

Highway 26 to the coast traverses the Coast Range. Storms from the Pacific dump loads of rain in these hills, over 100 inches per year, and more days are soggy than not. Before I began the climb to the 1,642 summit, I passed the Jim Dandy Farm, which advertised its vegetables with a huge ear of yellow corn, phallicly rising 20 feet into the air. A nearby store boasted 60 kinds of jerky, including ostrich, yak, alligator and other animals you would never dream of. I did buy some buffalo on my way home. 

The route to Jewell leaves Highway 26 onto N.103, a narrow two-lane road which drops into lush meadows and timber stands of Acer macrophyllum, Alnus rubra, Sambucus cerulea and the occasional Picea sitchensis, the “Sitka spruce.” Also abundant is Acer circinatum, the “Vine Maple,” which is very similar in leaf shape to Acer shirasawanum of Japan.

The main occupation in this area used to be logging, Pseudotsuga menziesii being the tree of choice. Those days are mostly past, and an aura of abandonment seems to characterize the surroundings now. Jewell is supposed to have a population of 994, but I couldn’t see where that could possible be true, unless families of 50 lived in every trailer house. Maybe 994 cows.

Acer macrophyllum 'Jewell'

Approaching town I witnessed many huge maples. The largest was a solitary tree in a pasture with an enormous canopy. I photographed this tree and christened it Acer macrophyllum ‘Jewell’. I became more excited to pursue my search for the champion, which was larger.

Once in town, which was no town, but only a few houses and a school, I slowly passed a residence with a family outside. A giant maple specimen hovered over them and their house. Certainly they must know about the champion, but these ruralites glared at me, clearly an outsider, so I drove on looking for people more friendly. Another individual, out getting the mail, said he “didn’t know nuthun about a maple.”

Maybe I’d never find the champion; apparently the Jewellites take their champions for granted. Or maybe it was a town secret, so outsiders wouldn’t go trespassing through their pastures.

Just outside of town I came across two men working on a piece of equipment; well, one was working and the other was supervising. Both were well-fed, nearly as broad as tall. The shorter of the two, we’ll call him “Cody,” eyed me warily just like everybody else. The taller man, “Cooter,” kept greasing his implement without looking at me.

Short Cody, with long silver hair, had a cocked head from years of looking up, his upper eye wide open and the lower eye in a continuous squint. I explained my business and his demeanor lightened up with curiosity. He quickly became a know-it-all and informed me that I was too late, that the tree had blown over. “I know,” I replied, “but I still want to find it.”

“Well,” he said, “you have to get back out to Highway 26 and go another 15 miles towards the coast. “And then you’ll see a sign for it.”

“But it’s supposed to be in Jewell,” I protested, “the world’s largest maple tree that recently blew over.”

Finally Cooter hollered at Cody, “He’s talking about a maple, you idiot, not that damn sycamore that’s down by the coast!” Cooter was not referring to a “sycamore,” but to a world champion “Sitka Spruce,” a tree which I had visited many times, which also had toppled just a year before. Cooter continued, “Don’t you know the difference between a maple and a damn sycamore?”

Probably not. But Cody took the insult hard, and was determined to redeem himself. He pulled out his cell phone to call someone who would certainly know if said maple existed. I was beginning to feel hopeless, and who needs to see a fallen giant anyway? Cody’s call went to the town wit, and surprisingly the call went through. A woman answered, screeching through the phone so loud that I didn’t require a translation. “Yes, the tree was just past the school, right next to the road. Why do you need to know?” When told, she repeated it twice more, assuming that I was equally as dense as Cody. I couldn’t deny Cody the honor of repeating once again that the maple was just past the school, right next to the road.

So I backtracked, driving slowly. And there it was, just past the school. I had missed it the first time, mainly because there was not much left to see. A few remnants of the twelve-foot trunk were mostly rotten, and the rest lay horizontal in the weeds. I expected something more spectacular, more majestic, but I took some photos anyway, out of a sense of duty. In a few years the champion would be completely gone and forgotten.

Acer macrophyllum Holznagel tree

With a few more hours left before the world ended, I decided to visit the nearby Jewell Meadows Elk Reserve. In the parking lot was another huge maple. A plaque near the trunk honored a man named Holznagel.  But the champion was much larger, and obviously a search is underway to crown another.

I passed the old champ once more before heading home; hoping perhaps that a miracle might resurrect it. But no; and again there wasn’t much left to see. I reflected that one day I will also be horizontal with nothing much left to see.

So my rapture was deflated afterall. But the good news is that the world didn’t end, the buffalo jerky was good, and I get to continue living with my family.


Last Monday, I decided to revisit Jewell, Oregon by myself, to celebrate my good fortune and the additional year I have been granted. I'm happy to report that the stump still remains, although it has a yellow "no hunting" sign nailed to it. Ouch, is that anyway to treat a former champ? Most of the old top has been removed for firewood and a new dirt road has been pushed through the brush nearby. But! But, a few new shoots are arising from the base, and so it still lives...not a complete resurrection, but perhaps it may reign champion again one day. I'll visit every May 21st, assuming one of us is still alive.

Of course there is a new replacement champion; temporarily anyway, and it resides in Marion County, Oregon. "Junior Mac" is much smaller in size, at only 88' tall, with an 8' diameter trunk and a crown-spread of 104'. I'll make an effort to visit this pretender some day, probably waiting until December 21st, 2012--until the day the world really ends, according to the Mayan calendar prophets.

Acer macrophyllum

The following article also appeared in the Maple Society Newsletter of Autumn 2011.

Acer macrophyllum -- The Big-leaf Maple

Acer macrophyllum, the “Oregon Maple” or the “Big-leaf” maple, forms the largest species in the Acer genus. It can grow to a huge size with a short trunk and a wide canopy. It is native to the western United States, from British Columbia to California,  usually at low elevations.

Leaves are quite large, commonly 12” in diameter, but on young vigorous shoots in shade they can attain 24” in diameter. Also, if an older tree is cut down, leaves from new suckers at the base can reach the 24” size. Sometimes autumn color can be a spectacular glowing yellow; other times it can be dull, with green leaves turning yellowish then brown.

Acer macrophyllum in flower

Cream yellow flowers occur in spring in pendulous racemes, followed by large double-winged samaras with brownish hairs. In some cases an old specimen will be entirely covered with flowers, creating a most ornamental effect. On rocky, lean soils the flower color can be more strongly yellow, at least in some locations in Oregon.


 Acer macrophyllum

The Big-leaf maple can be found growing on well-drained hillsides, in valley pastures or along streambeds. In Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, a site exists where macrophyllums literally brush against Oregon’s other two native Acers, Acer circinatum and Acer glabrum ssp. douglassii, but never do they hybridize. Acer macrophyllum is in the section Lithocarpa, along with Acer diabolicum, Acer sinopurpurescens and Acer sterculiaceum.

Acer macrophyllum in the Olympic National Forest

One of the most fascinating places to observe Acer macrophyllum is in the Olympic National Forest in Washington State, USA. In particular, the famous Hall of Mosses in the Hoh Rainforest is where macrophyllums host an extreme biomass of mosses, lichens and ferns. It is worth Googling this temperate rainforest and note photographs of a most wonderful cathedral-like place.

Big-leaf maple wood is hard and strong and is used in furniture production, musical instruments and bowls. It is also commonly used as an excellent firewood. Maple syrup can be made from the tree but it will not taste the same as syrup from the sugar maple, Acer saccharum.

Acer macrophyllum 'Seattle Sentinel'

Acer macrophyllum 'Kimballiae'

A variegated form of Acer macrophyllum

Acer macrophyllum 'Mocha Rose'

Acer macrophyllum 'Mocha Rose' in May

Acer macrophyllum 'Mocha Rose' in July

Acer macrophyllum 'Mocha Rose'

A few cultivars of Acer macrophyllum exist, but they are seldom found in gardens. ‘Kimballiae’ is a vigorous shrub with large, deeply dissected leaves. ‘Seattle Sentinel’ has a narrow upright crown. Perhaps the most garden-worthy cultivar is ‘Mocha Rose’ which is more dwarf than the type. Leaves emerge shrimp-pink in spring then evolve to a cream-brown color by mid-summer.

I suppose most Oregonians take the Big-leaf maple for granted. We have a lot of large trees in our forests: Quercus garryana (Oregon Oak), Alnus rubra (red alder), Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir) and Tsuga heterophylla (western hemlock) to name a few. But visitors from other states and countries have been known to gasp when they witness a large specimen. Invariably they’ll remark, “Wow. That really is a BIG maple!”

A tree-hugger with a Big-leaf maple

Friday, May 18, 2012

California Sunshine Part 2

San Francisco


Reuben Hatch with a Rhododendron hybrid

We started early, up the coast on a beautiful Saturday morning, but also into the congestion of San Francisco. The sun was bright and the girls were parading in Golden Gate Park in skimpy outfits. Our focus was on plants, of course, not on gorgeous, sunbathing California women. Our first stop was the John McLaren Rhododendron Dell. This garden is where my companion, plantsman Hatch, got his inspiration to collect Rhododendrons...which led him to growing them for a living in Vancouver, Washington--indeed: to supply Rhododendrons "for the discerning gardener." Those who have visited my display gardens (if you are discerning, anyway) must have noticed that I have a small, but excellent Rhododendron collection, all via the discerning Mr. Hatch. The Dell has changed dramatically over the years (I'm told) as many large species Rhododendrons have been ousted in favor of hybrids, hybrids which often can equal, or outperform the parents, just as my children have done.

This was a nice, short excursion...but now to the Strybing Arboretum, a garden I have been to about (?) ten times. But wait! The gates weren't open yet. It used to be that you could walk in at sunrise and exit at sunset for free, but now one had to purchase a ticket, due, as the ticket vendor said, "to the corruption and ineptitude of city officials"--a cross reminder of who isn't serving who, when they should be serving us, at all levels of government. So we lolled the time at a pungent, trendy coffee shop a few blocks away.


Cupressus macrocarpa

Later, I snapped a photo from outside the Strybing gate, a photo of its signature tree, the huge Cupressus macrocarpa. Finally, like kids in a toy shop, the gates opened and we burst into the collection. Yes, a collection; but unlike mine (Flora Wonder), a wonderful landscape as well as a collection. A place that suits everybody: joggers, moms and kids, Chinese morning exercisers, single people walking, as well as the arborist, the professional landscaper, the botanist, or the nurseryman like myself. Enough with coffee--let's see the trees!

Magnolia campbellii 'Pink Form'
Rhododendron 'Rose Mangles'

Turning right I could see Rhododendrons in bloom. We were too late for their famous Magnolia campbellii 'Pink Form', but its trunk was attractive.

Acer skutchii

Acer morrisonense

Acer laevigatum

Acer kawakamii


Acer palmatum

Acer mono (or pictum) 'Usugumo'

Acer mono

Rhododendron parryae

The Strybing has a few interesting maples, but apparently cultivars are not a focus. Non-hardy (for me) species such as Acer morrisonense, a "snake bark" from Taiwan, and Acer skutchii, the Mexican sugar maple looked healthy in San Francisco, as did Acer laevigatum from China and Acer kawakamii, from Taiwan and China. There is a small group of green seedling Acer palmatum, and years ago I took a photo of a branchlet's shadow on the gray palmatum trunk. Now the trees are huge and it's virtually dark inside the grove. The palmatum species is obviously hardy for me; and so is Acer mono, here with new chocolate-colored leaves. We grow only one cultivar of Acer mono (or Acer pictum): 'Usugumo'. One other maple to mention is Acer griseum, the "paperbark maple." Er, wait a second, that's not a maple; it's Rhododendron parryae from Assam, with the most griseum-like bark.

Ceroxylon quindiuense

Ceroxylon hexandrum

Laurus nobilis

Speaking of bark, the "Andean Wax Palm," Ceroxylon quindiuense--this time spelled incorrectly with two l's--had shot further into the sky since my last visit, three or four years ago. But I searched in vain for its companion, Ceroxylon hexandrum. An interesting group of trunks turned out to be just one tree, Laurus nobilis, the "Sweet Bay," an aromatic tree from the Mediterranean. This is the laurel that the Greeks and Romans put atop their heads, and that they eventually hoped to rest upon.

Luma apiculata
Cyathea cooperi

Mahonia duclouxiana
Mahonia siamensis

Xanthorrhoea species

Luma apiculata displayed warm, cinnamon-colored bark. Cyathea cooperi, the "Australian Tree Fern," had a fascinating trunk pattern. Mahonia duclouxiana from China was a prickly blob above, but featured a nice trunk, similar to Mahonia siamensis. Upon further review, these two are the same tree, just a different name this time. The "Grass Tree," Xanthorrhoea sp. from Australia was interesting from top to bottom.

Agave species

Agave salmiana

Puya species

Aeonium arboreum 'Swartzkopf'

Aloe arborescens
Aeonium species

I always enjoy the Agave-Puya-Aloe-Aoenium section, but many of the labels were missing, or rather, I didn't want to fight the foliage to find them. Please excuse any nomenclatural mistakes, as I'm just the visitor.

Gunnera tinctoria


Araucaria heterophylla

Araucaria bidwilliii (Bunya Tree)
Dicksonia species (Tree Fern)


Cycas pectinata

Eventually we came to the "prehistoric section," one of my favorite places. The boardwalk leads you around Gunnera, Araucaria, ferns and horsetail etc.--all evocative of earth's incredible past. 

Pinus montezumae

Pinus pseudostrobus var. apulcensis

Some sections of Strybing looked great and well-tended, while others were in need of attention. There used to be a wonderful collection of Mexican pines, but only a few were left. Pinus montezumae is a favorite for lustrous, long pendent needles and attractive bark. Another pine, Pseudostrobus var. apulcensis is as beautiful as any, and I have seen it in the wild. I was looking forward to others, but many had been cut down.

We wore ourselves out quickly today; it was hot and we're both older. Still, my grandfather did treat me to a visit to the Legion of Honor Art Museum, and there were many nice things to see, but I won't go into that now. We took the route around the Bay which was beautiful but traffic jammed. Eventually we reached our final destination, Flora Grubb Gardens.

vertical garden

Wall of Chairs

Flora Grubb is a real person, as her website explains, really named Flora Grubb. She owns a most interesting retail nursery, but "Gardens" is a very appropriate description of what you find. Plants are arranged in wonderful fashion, into little vignettes full of goodies. The grounds are of modest size, but Flora increases her space with vertical creations. A bicycle was hanging from the ceiling, with air plants growing on it. An old car was decomposing in the corner, also festooned with plants. Where better to grow bog plants a sink? My favorite was the wall of chairs, an artful presentation using "free room."


Phoenix canariensis

Fuchsia species from Ecuador

Trachycarpus fortunei

The nursery had a good selection of Agaves, succulents and the like. I was impressed with the trunk of a large Phoenix canariensis, but the most amazing (by far) trunk belonged to another palm, Trachycarpus fortunei. I've seen my share of "Windmill Palms," but never recalled a barber-pole trunk before. Thanks to employee Clarke for identification on the palms, and also for pointing out a luxurious Fuchsia from Ecuador.


I was pleased to walk through a beautiful group of maples, high quality trees at reasonable prices. All right, they all came from me. I'm happy that Flora is spreading maple fever throughout town. One last look around: at sculpture, hanging chairs and bicycles in the air. The next day back to our own gardens, refreshed, and excited to see how much everything has grown and what is newly in bloom.