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Talking really big: Eastern cottonwood earns Illinois Big Tree Champion

Chloe Sweet of the Arbor Day Foundation celebrates a "grand'' tree, an eastern cottonwood now the Illinois Big Tree Champion. | Dale Bowman/Sun Times

Chloe Sweet of the Arbor Day Foundation celebrates a "grand'' tree, an eastern cottonwood now the Illinois Big Tree Champion. | Dale Bowman/ Sun-Times

MT. MORRIS, Ill.–Ariana Heynan sized up the cottonwood Friday.

“Wow,’’ the 6-year-old said. “It is so big.’’

Biggest in Illinois.

An eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) growing in the Byron Forest Preserve District’s new Bald Hill Prairie Preserve is the Illinois Big Tree Champion. By a score of 491-487, the cottonwood edged out the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) in the Cache River area of far southern Illinois, which had was the record for more than 20 years.

Former “big tree” champion cypress in southern Illinois.
Provided by Illinois Department of Natural Resources

“I put my arms around [the cottonwood]—and I have a six-foot span—and it took six times to go around,’’ said BFPD executive director Todd Tucker, who stands 6-2.

Twenty years ago, he had found a 21-foot-around cottonwood. He looked up records and realized it was nowhere near the record. This one he thought had a chance and brought back a tape measure.

It is 28.5 feet in circumference, more than nine feet in diameter. A drone with elevation software was used to measure the height of 122 feet.

Scoring for big trees in the Illinois Big Tree Register is done by adding the inches of the circumference, the height in feet and ¼ of the width of the crown in feet.

“It is a good way to appreciate our native trees,’’ Chris Evans said. “There are 183 native species trees or tree-like shrubs. That makes us pretty diverse. There’s cypress and tupelo in the south and bur oaks in the north. We are uniquely situated.’’

Evans and Jay Hayek are the only two forestry specialists for the University of Illinois Extension and neither has had the time yet to double-check the cottonwood measurements. Hayek administers the The Illinois Big Tree Register.

Chloe Sweet of the Arbor Day Foundation–“plant, nurture and celebrate trees’’–came in from Nebraska to see the cottonwood on Arbor Day.

“Always good to celebrate a grand tree,’’ she said.

Grand indeed.

It’s estimated to be 200 years old, making it a bicentennial tree, which probably started growing when Illinois became the 21st state in 1818.

The cottonwood grows in a draw between hills. It’s base had been hidden by a thicket of invasive honeysuckle bushes, multifloral rose and small trees.

Tucker and superintendent of land management Russell Brunner found the tree when surveying the property after purchase last year.

Of the $652,000 purchase of the 160-acre parcel, an Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation grant provided $434,000.

The land is very hilly—elevation changes 185 feet–and basically fit only for grazing. It is a gravel hill prairie from the remnants of glaciers, including some baseball-sized copper chucks. It is not certain whether a Native American mound is on the property.

Rare plants include woolly milkweed, lead plant, blue-eyed grass and stiff sandwort.

Tucker expects they will leave a couple benches around for visitors, though it is a .4-mile walk in and the site is on a dead-end road and isolated.

Commissioner Frank Conry, a faithful Sun-Times reader who grew up on the South Side before becoming the Byron High School principle for 29 years, colorfully described it as, “This is like where God lost his sandals.’’

That isolation may have helped it survive. Tucker said when the first aerial survey of Ogle County was done in 1939, you could already see the cottonwood in it.

Mary Rose Fillip, who researched the history of the property, said, “Oh, if it could talk.’’

Illinois Big Tree Champion is an eastern cottonwood in the Byron Forest Preserve District’s Bald Hill Prairie Preserve. | Dale Bowman/ Sun-Times