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Giant Oak Comes Out Of Hiding

  • Lyla Eve Bauer, 5, of Hanover, holds a sign marking the largest red oak tree in Grafton County as Adair Mulligan, executive director of the Hanover Conservancy, digs a hole for the sign in front of the tree on Balch Hill in Hanover, N.H. on July 9, 2014.  (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker)

    Lyla Eve Bauer, 5, of Hanover, holds a sign marking the largest red oak tree in Grafton County as Adair Mulligan, executive director of the Hanover Conservancy, digs a hole for the sign in front of the tree on Balch Hill in Hanover, N.H. on July 9, 2014. (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker) Purchase photo reprints »

  • From left: Laura Mattison, Lyla Eve Bauer, 5, and Adair Mulligan pose for scale around the largest red oak tree in Grafton County after putting up the sign designating it as such at Balch Hill in Hanover, N.H. on July 9, 2014.  Mattison is the Outreach and Stewardship Coordinator and Mulligan is the Executive Director of the Hanover Conservancy.  (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker)

    From left: Laura Mattison, Lyla Eve Bauer, 5, and Adair Mulligan pose for scale around the largest red oak tree in Grafton County after putting up the sign designating it as such at Balch Hill in Hanover, N.H. on July 9, 2014. Mattison is the Outreach and Stewardship Coordinator and Mulligan is the Executive Director of the Hanover Conservancy. (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Laura Mattison, the outreach and stewardship coordinator for the Hanover Conservancy, carries a sign that will mark the largest red oak tree in Grafton County while hiking to the tree on Balch Hill in Hanover, N.H. on July 9, 2014.  (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker)

    Laura Mattison, the outreach and stewardship coordinator for the Hanover Conservancy, carries a sign that will mark the largest red oak tree in Grafton County while hiking to the tree on Balch Hill in Hanover, N.H. on July 9, 2014. (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lyla Eve Bauer, 5, of Hanover, holds a sign marking the largest red oak tree in Grafton County as Adair Mulligan, executive director of the Hanover Conservancy, digs a hole for the sign in front of the tree on Balch Hill in Hanover, N.H. on July 9, 2014.  (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker)
  • From left: Laura Mattison, Lyla Eve Bauer, 5, and Adair Mulligan pose for scale around the largest red oak tree in Grafton County after putting up the sign designating it as such at Balch Hill in Hanover, N.H. on July 9, 2014.  Mattison is the Outreach and Stewardship Coordinator and Mulligan is the Executive Director of the Hanover Conservancy.  (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker)
  • Laura Mattison, the outreach and stewardship coordinator for the Hanover Conservancy, carries a sign that will mark the largest red oak tree in Grafton County while hiking to the tree on Balch Hill in Hanover, N.H. on July 9, 2014.  (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker)

Hanover — Th e champion Northern red oak of Grafton County stands sedately among pedestrian pines, along one of the Hanover Conservancy’s side trails on Balch Hill. How sedate? Even most of its human neighbors didn’t appreciate its status until this week .

“We’ve been by it plenty of times,” Supreet Bauer, a member of the conservancy’s stewardship council, said while conservancy employee Laura Mattison dug a hole for the signpost announcing its supremacy on Wednesday afternoon. “I didn’t realize it’s the biggest.”

“Neither did we,” Adair Mulligan, the conservancy’s executive director, replied.

Not until Frank Stevens of Ashland, N.H., volunteer Grafton County coordinator for the New Hampshire Big Tree Program, this past spring measured its girth at 196 inches, its height at 114 feet, and its “average crown spread” at 80 feet, and factored it all into the program’s formula for prize specimens .

“By my calculations,” Stevens wrote in an email to Mulligan in late May, “this gives it a total of 330 points, which should be enough to make it the Grafton County Champion.”

In June, Stevens said this past Thursday, the state coordinator of the program — a project of the UNH Cooperative Extension Service and the N.H. Division of Forests & Lands — confirmed that the conservancy’s red oak (Quercus rubra) supplants as county champion a Littleton tree with vital statistics adding up to 271 points.

According to the extension service’s chart of champions statewide and by county, posted last November, a red oak in Charlestown reigns over Sullivan County at 270 inches around, 61 feet from ground to sky and a crown spread of 104 feet. The state champion, in Hillsboro, boasts a girth of 275 inches, a height of 130 feet and a crown spread of 80 feet.

In all, the chart lists 402 trees, spread among 51 species, including 10 varieties of oak. Lyme hosts the New Hampshire-champion white poplar and Grafton County’s top bitternut hickory, while Hanover is home to the state’s leading crack willow and to Grafton County’s foremost common apple tree.

In Vermont, state champions from the Upper Valley include a Scotch pine, a red pine, a yellowwood and a Norway spruce in Woodstock; an American basswood and a hackberry in Windsor; a white spruce in West Fairlee; a Douglas fir in Strafford; and a black walnut in Hartland.

Balch Hill’s prize red oak whose age an Upper Valley forester estimates at 200 years or more, Mulligan said once stood out more boldly. Around the Civil War and even early in the 20th century, sheep grazed over the hill in what was then as much a farm town as a college town.

Pointing to a substantial ash and a big maple nearby, and to a venerable stone wall paralleling the Link Trail and overlooking Trescott Road, Mulligan added, “These guys are still here because this was right along a boundary, and neither of the landowners quite dared to take it down. We have that old respect for boundaries to thank for this old guy being here.”

Thanks to its height and favorable southern exposure for its crown spread, the old guy so far is holding its own despite the relatively steep pitch of the slope toward Trescott Road, on soil that thinly blankets ledge.

In an essay she wrote for the state extension service in 2006, big-tree program team member Anne Krantz described the Northern red oak as “the backbone of the New England forest. … The fastest growing of the oaks, it has a strong lateral root system that anchors it to the New England rocky soils, and a high, lofty canopy that grows to 60-90 feet. A pasture red oak will develop a wide crown with thick horizontal branches, while the forest red oak will be tall with a tuft of canopy at the top of a straight trunk.”

The new champion might well have had some competition right in its own neighborhood. On the other side of Balch Hill stands another red oak that “would have been considerably larger” in circumference, Stevens wrote in his May email. In recent years, a lightning strike split the trunk and broke the other tree’s branches.

“We can think of it as the Venus de Milo of oaks, venerable and still very beautiful despite her missing arms,” Stevens concluded.

For its newly crowned king, the conservancy commissioned a free-standing sign, rather than nailing one into the trunk and creating a portal for weather, bugs and disease.

“I don’t want to mess around with the county champion,” Mulligan said.

For more information about the New Hampshire Big Tree program, visit extension.unh.edu/Trees/NH-Big-Tree-Program .

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.