By Gerald Hay
Everyone likes to root for a champion in Johnson County. And when that champion is rooted firmly in the ground, it’s a win-win situation. Johnson County currently has 26 tree-mendous champs. They are among the 168 Champion Trees of Kansas on the 2020 list. The program, dating to the early 1960s, is managed by the Kansas Forest Service at Kansas State University.
Kansas Champion Trees are the super-sized, superstars of their species.
“The program helps showcase the importance of trees to the environment in a fun way. There is always a top 10 list. So why not a listing of the biggest trees in the states? Other states have similar programs. It also shows the diversity of trees throughout the state of Kansas,” said Dennis Patton, horticulturist at the Johnson County K-State Research and Extension Office.
“We do not think of Kansas as having trees – it is a prairie state, but forests are important to the health of the environment. The value of street trees in the cities is important – air quality, cooling effects, stormwater runoff, wildlife habitat and so much more. A tree-lined street can increase property values around 10%.”
A Kansas Champion Tree is determined by a point system that includes height, crown spread and trunk size. Circumference is the most important factor. Each tree is measured against trees of the same species.
According to Patton, the 26 Champion Trees in Johnson County are in backyards, city parks, golf courses, churches and cemeteries. The trees include five species of pine, two species of oak along with species of ash, cherry, birch, elm, hazelnut, hemlock, magnolia, maple, soapberry and sweetgum.
Olathe has the most local champion trees with seven. There was an eighth one until the release of the 2020 list in September. An Osage orange tree, standing 76 feet from the ground, was named the largest of its species when building the new courthouse in downtown Olathe, but had its champion status uprooted by another Osage orange in Emporia.
“Unfortunately, our Osage orange has been dethroned. The Olathe tree is taller, but the Emporia tree had a wider crown spread and bigger circumference, thus more points on the scale,” Patton said.
The Olathe tree was spared four years ago in development of the construction site for the new courthouse and incorporated into the project’s northern parking lot. The age of the Osage orange tree at the new courthouse remains only an estimate. It’s believed the tree was a sapling when Johnson County was a toddler.
“We think it’s been around as long as Olathe and Johnson County have been around,” Patton said with a smile. Olathe was founded in 1857.
The county was created two years before the city.
The other 19 Champion Trees in Johnson County are in nine cities. Five trees are in Prairie Village.
Leawood and Overland Park each have three; Mission Hills and Shawnee each have two; and there is one champion tree each in Stilwell, Westwood, Mission and De Soto Champion Trees come in all sizes. A pecan, towering 139 feet at Fort Leavenworth, is the tallest on the 2020 list. Two trees – a dogwood in Topeka and a willow in Osage City – are the shortest at 16 feet. The willow also has the smallest circumference at 1-foot, 3-inches.
A silver maple at the Timberlake Girl Scout Camp in Stilwell has the widest circumference at 25½ feet among all Kansas Champion Trees.
The tallest Champion Tree in Johnson County is a shingle oak, with a height of 96 feet, in Mission. The shortest is a 17-foot American fringe tree in Prairie Village.
Patton is always on the lookout for local trees that might compete for champion status. If a tree is reported by volunteers, residents or homeowners, he takes a rough measurement of the tree to determine if the nominated tree can compete with the existing Champion Tree.
“It is really based on reporting – someone seeing a large tree, comparing to the current champion, then measuring to confirm,” Patton said. “There is no set timetable. Requests to measuring are followed up as they come in. If the tree is bigger, the records are updated.”
The program does not present plaques or signage in recognition of Kansas Champion Trees. The 2020 list of Champion Trees is available at: kansasforests.org/kansas_forest_services/championtrees.html.