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

1 comment:

  1. Hello Talon, guess you will have heared or red about the current bigleaf champion in Lane County, Oregon. Did you have a look at this one yet?
    Could the surviving shoots of the fallen Jewell giant recover till today?
    I would like to try grafting buds of remained sprouts to a maple native to my home in Austria, yet this would cause some effort to both of us.
    Might be valued as a kind of botanic experiment.
    Kind regards