Leafy Legends in a Young Land

I don't know why I think it's a she.

Maybe it's the way her boughs sweep out gracefully, embracing the space around her. Maybe it's the heart-shaped leaves. Or the way her trunk bunches at the bottom, inviting you to sit on her lap.

This historic tree - the largest known royal paulownia in the United States - ranks as one of the country's national champions. Nominated by big-tree hunters, people who make it their hobby to find the

largest specimen of a particular species,

and ranked by American Forests, a conservation group based in Washington, the champions find their way into the National Register of Big Trees, published every two years.

The 1998-99 guide, out this spring, lists 825 champion trees, including 139 new ones and, of course, the royal paulownia here in Evansville, Ind.

Think big trees and one immediately conjures up the sequoias and other huge conifers out West. They're listed here. The "General Sherman" giant sequoia in California's Sequoia National Park weighs as much as 360 elephants and ranks as the largest living tree on earth.

America's oldest national champion, and also the world's oldest living tree, is a redwood nicknamed "Eternal God." It sprouted some 12,000 years ago, after prehistoric people had apparently moved into the New World but before they had developed agriculture. It stands in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Calif.

But national champion trees can be found throughout the US. Forty-six states can boast at least one. And the search never ends, as new ones are discovered and old ones fall to storms or even vandalism.

In case you want to include big trees in your summer sightseeing, be forewarned: American Forests can put you in touch and give directions to a particular tree. But not all the trees are readily accessible. Many grow on private land or so remotely in a national park that only the most dedicated "big-tree hunter" will reach them.

Even when they are accessible, local visitors bureaus don't know about them. They don't realize the treasure they have. But ask someone who knows, and one gets not only a look at a magnificent tree but often a story too.

In 1926, Eldora Raleigh wanted to commemorate the completion of Reitz Memorial High School, a religious school here in Evansville. She wrote to a Roman Catholic priest:

"Since the Reitz Memorial School has been erected, I have thought that a memorial tree in honor of Evansville's first priest would be a good thing to have on the campus, and, if so, what could be more appropriate than a tree from the original parent-root brought by him from his beloved France?"

In fact, the French priest, Anthony Dedyier, had come to Evansville to build a church. On a return trip to France, he picked up four paulownia seedlings, which he brought back to America and gave to friends.

It was a strange choice. Paulownias are not native to Europe but to China and Japan. They first came to America some 150 years ago from China. As the story goes, Chinese porcelainmakers used the tree's seed pods as packing material. When some of the crates were opened in Washington, they got scattered and took root along the Potomac River. From there they spread west, all the way to Kentucky and Tennessee.

It wasn't hard. Paulownias are fast-growing trees. In their early years they sometimes grow 12 to 18 feet a year. While they thrive in the Southeast, it's unusual to have a paulownia growing as far north as Indiana.

But Mrs. Raleigh's sprout from a tree brought from France did grow and thrive. By 1938, it was big enough to catch the eye of Brother Thaddeus at the school, who wrote down the origins of the "rather odd but beautiful tree" standing at the southwest corner of the building.

In 1989, when it was measured officially, the royal paulownia stood 64-feet-high with a crown spreading an average 67 feet and a trunk measuring 260 inches around. By the peculiar math used by American Forests, the big tree rated 341 points, making it the largest paulownia in the country.

"These are the biggest known trees of their species," says Craig Noble, spokesman for American Forests. But "people are constantly submitting nominations. This is a work in progress."

By honoring big trees, the group hopes to inspire people to take care of their trees. That's what happened in Evansville. A few years ago, when storms broke some of the tree's main limbs, the alumni association raised $4,800 to stabilize it. The Davey Tree Expert Company, a tree preservation business in Kent, Ohio, filled in the core of the trunk with concrete, poked steel rods through the trunk, and strung wires in the upper branches to reduce the stress on the huge, heavy boughs.

"This tree has a lot of memories" for alumni, says Pam Goergen, secretary to the principal. Every year, the students have their class picture taken around the tree.

Human intervention worked. The tree survived so that a few weeks ago the class of 1998 could have its picture taken in front of the paulownia. A week or two before graduation, the tree burst into bloom with its trademark purple flowers.

Although the storms diminished the tree's crown, the trunk stands as big as ever. According to the rules of American Forests, one measures a tree's circumference at the smallest point of the trunk no more than 4-1/2 feet above ground level. Without a tape measure, you can use your arms to estimate its girth. It turns out that 4-1/2 feet is also about the arm span of most adults, especially when they have to lean toward the tree to embrace it.

And so, for a minute, I'm a tree-hugger. Not because I'm radically opposed to logging but because I want to get the full measure of this paulownia. I stretch my arms. The bark's rougher than expected. My left fingers mark a spot on the trunk. I walk around, put my right fingers on that spot, and stretch again. Up that close I see that what looked like an all-gray trunk is really liberally mottled with a living brown. Another stretch. Contrary to all those pioneer legends, moss grows on all sides of this tree. Another stretch and a hand's length returns me to the starting point.

If my reach spans a bit more than five feet, then the trunk does measure 260 inches - nearly 22 feet. Up above, mourning doves and other birds flit among the branches. A careful observer spots a couple of nests. Here below, the branches shade me from a rising sun.

It's a simple image. The tree that supports the birds and other living things also shades me - a metaphor, perhaps, for a life well-lived.

* American Forests can be reached by phone at (202) 955-4500, or by mail: 910 17th Street NW, Washington, DC, 20006

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