The National Register of Big Trees and the Georgia Forestry Commission keep a record of giant trees, known as champion trees. Champion trees are considered the largest known of a particular non-invasive species. They must be at least 9.5 feet in circumference, have a definitely formed foliage crown and be at least 13 feet in height. Georgia has 40 trees listed on the national register.
Here is a list of current regional champion trees:
Slash pine – Bryan
Stagger-bush – Fort Stewart
Loblolly bay – Fort Stewart
Loblolly pine – Fort Stewart
Swamp tupelo – Ludowici
Myrtle leaf holly – Big Hammock Natural Area
Sand live oak – Glennville
Georgia plume – Glennville (also on national register)
Palmetto cabbage – Reidsville
Altamaha Riverkeeper James Holland swore he was looking at something prehistoric the first time he ventured into a 7,180-acre tract of land that straddles Long and McIntosh counties. Though it was under floodwaters at the time, Holland found a giant cypress tree specimen measuring more than 43 feet in circumference.
But it wasn’t until the fall that Holland came back in drier conditions and found the tree’s big brother — an old-growth cypress measuring 44.5 feet in circumference and standing more than 100 feet tall.
“Some of the tops have been blown out by high winds, but they’re still growing,” Holland said. “They’re not dead or dying by any means.”
A unique feature Holland and state officials found during their examination of the trees — and one that might lead people to mistake them for dying trees — is that several of the largest ones are hollow in the center. “I’ve been inside one. It’s larger than most people’s kitchens,” he said. “You could fit a table and chairs, and probably a couch in there.”
Holland guessed that the trees became hollow because of watery growing conditions, though many times older living trees will lose their cores, or heartwood, to decay, but continue to grow without it.
This cavernous characteristic is what likely saved many of the older cypress trees from being cut down during a logging period more than 100 years ago. Evidence of the logging remains in what is now a conservation area within the Townsend Wildlife Management, which was purchased by the state from The Nature Conservancy.
“It looks like they built a road and used hollowed-out trees as culverts,” Holland said.
The trees also serve as shelter for local wildlife. “Being hollow, they’re important to bats, which roost in these hollows,” the riverkeeper said. “The state [surveyors] found one inside the 40-foot tree.”
Holland and state representatives have discussed opening up the preserve to hiking and biking, “but those are just ideas. It would take money.”
Holland said because the land is state property, the trees and other wildlife in it belong to the people. He said the more people who know about it, the easier it will be to protect the old-growth trees. “You can’t put a dollar value on protecting something that’s been here since I figure Columbus was here,” he said. “This does belong to the public.”