Tree hunter becomes state champion in his own right

Sunday, November 10, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:55 a.m. CST, Monday, November 11, 2013
Ryan Russell hunts champion trees. He has found 14 of the state's 111 champions, a half-dozen of which are on MU's campus.

COLUMBIA — Ryan Russell, standing in the rain next to his contender for the state's largest smooth sumac tree, offered his secret to tree hunting.

"I always keep my eyes open," he said. "Wherever I go."

Russell's champions

On the MU campus:

  • Blackhaw Viburnum, viburnum prunifolium
  • Buttonbush, cephalanthus occidentalis
  • Roughleaf dogwood, cornus drummondii

  • Black maple, acer nigrum


  • Carolina buckthorn, rhamnus caroliniana
  • Praire crabapple, malus ioensis

  • Honeylocust, gleditsia triacanthos
  • Wild goose plum, prunus munsoniana

  • Prickly ash, zanthoxylum americanum (also a national champion)
  • Sassafras, sassafras albidum
  • Smooth sumac, rhus glabra
  • Sugarberry, celtis laevigata

The Missouri Department of Conservation crowns the largest tree of each species a state champion, and so far, Russell has found 14 — more than anyone else in the program's 45-year history.

Russell works as a horticulturist for Columbia's Parks and Recreation Department and was MU's arborist before that, so he's something of a tree connoisseur. There are more acorns on his desk than sheets of paper.

And he doesn't stop thinking about trees once he's clocked out. His commutes resemble games of "I Spy" — he knows which species don't yet have champions, and he knows what they look like. And if he spots one from behind the wheel, he's not shy about pulling over to investigate.

That's what happened in 2011, when he was driving into Fulton to coach his son's baseball team. Some distance from the road — maybe 400 yards — a red oak towered above the surrounding woods. Russell had driven by it before, but every time he passed he felt more certain it was worth checking out. Finally, it became too much; he pulled over.

He checked in with the property owner then hurried through a pasture and across a fence to the tree. The tree Russell found was huge, maybe large enough to be champion material — but when he got close enough to measure it he realized it was a black oak.

As he returned to his car, feeling defeated, he glimpsed something else. He'd been so focused on the not-red oak, he hadn't noticed another tree growing out of the fence row — tall and thick and heavy with crab apples. He got out his measuring gear and sized it up.

The tree was so freakishly big for its species — 23 feet tall, with branches spreading 30 feet wide; normal specimens look more like a shrub — he almost didn't trust his findings until foresters with the Conservation Department confirmed it.

Russell had found the largest prairie crabapple tree in the country — the national champion. 

The Zen of tree hunting

Hunting big trees is an exercise in observation; not just "Where's Waldo" in the woods, rather more like competitive bird-watching. The challenge is seeing — and appreciating — what's in front of you.

"I started doing it because — plants, trees, it's just what I love to do. And it's not something I can turn off," he said. "Some would call it an illness, I guess."

If it is an illness, he can trace the symptoms to his childhood in Callaway County. In the winter, his father and grandfather would take him into the woods to cut firewood. He learned from them how to tell a white oak from a black oak.

Later, he began to work at MU's landscaping division, first as a seasonal worker running machinery and planting trees. He enjoyed the job, but had higher aspirations. He set his sights on becoming the MU arborist, the best gig in the landscaping division.

After work, he would study for the International Society of Arboriculture exam — the arborist equivalent of passing the bar. And when he wasn't busy tending plants on campus, he was chasing professors to ask them botany questions. He credits two MU professors with bolstering his botanical expertise: Chris Starbuck from plant sciences and Mark Coggeshall from forestry.

Russell learned about the champion tree program about four years ago. He said he started looking at the list of champions and thought, "Man, I think I know a bigger one than that."

He struck out on his first few finds, but it didn't take him long to begin racking up champions.

On MU's campus alone, Russell's found six champions: the black haw, buttonbush, rough-leaf dogwood and black maple are still reigning champions; the fringetree and sugarberry have been dethroned, but are still the second and third largest, respectively, in the state.

Donna Baldwin, coordinator of the Missouri State Champion Tree Program, said Russell had a streak of champions like nothing she's seen before. He's even tracked down a few trees so uncommon, the foresters needed to double-check their dichotomous keys to confirm the species.

"He's kind of become our state tree hunter," she said.

Hunt them to save them

When he worked for the university, his enthusiasm for tree hunting infected his coworkers; he nominated several of his early finds with his colleagues Will Branch and Austin Lampe.

But when Russell began working for the city, he was surprised to find people approaching him — a few he didn't even know — to ask him about this or that big tree they knew growing somewhere. He's happy to share what he knows, but he's even happier when he cultivates another enthusiast.

"I don't need them all," he said. "You guys can nominate some trees yourself."

Besides the work he does with Parks and Recreation, he sees the champion tree program as one way of stirring interest in protecting valuable trees. If he finds a champion, he makes sure the landowner receives an award certificate mounted on a walnut plaque. That way, he said, they know they have something worth protecting when the power company comes knocking with chainsaws and cherry-pickers.

"Trees and landscapes are always an afterthought," he said. "Preserve the ones you have, and make sure you do a good job of putting some back."

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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