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August 25. 2013 10:48PM

A tale of two trees

Rollinsford, Sugar Hill vie for largest cottonwood title


Rick Hunt of Sugar Hill stands next to the state's second-largest cottonwood tree. The largest cottonwood is in Rollinsford. (MICKEY DE RHAM)


 

A race for the biggest cottonwood tree in the state is on, but only Mother Nature can control whether the giant tree in Sugar Hill outgrows the current champion in Rollinsford.

Mickey de Rham, a Sugar Hill resident, said the state's second-largest cottonwood grows not far from her on the side of the road on Route 117.

"When you're looking for it, it's easy to find," de Rham said. "It really draws people's attention."

The trunk of the Sugar Hill tree has a circumference of close to 22 feet, and the tree stands 117 feet tall with a crown spread of 85 feet. The tree in Rollinsford has a trunk that's 22.7 feet around. Though it's shorter than the Sugar Hill tree by five inches, its crown spread is 111 feet.

The New Hampshire Big Tree program, part of a national effort to catalog mammoth trees of all types, has done the measuring of both trees and keeps track of which one holds the record. Each county in the state has a coordinator in charge of measuring trees, said Carolyn Page, head of the program.

The Big Tree program was started in the 1940s when forests across the country were just starting the uphill climb from the deforestation that occurred in earlier decades, Page said.

"We want to bring attention to these beautiful trees so that people realize they're out there," she said.

The Sugar Hill tree, which is more than 100 years old, is a recent addition to the Big Tree program.

"There's a sort of friendly competition that happens over these trees, even among local coordinators," said Page.

One of those competitions was between white oaks in Hillsborough and Laconia, she said, though ultimately, the Hillsborough oak won.

Dave Falkenham, a forester with University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension in Grafton County, said that cottonwoods aren't common to New Hampshire and tend to be more of a Midwestern tree. The hardwoods grow in river bottoms and can get really, really big, he said.

"Because they grow in flood plains, they have to grow up fast or the water will wash them away," said Falkenham.

When Dutch elm disease began wiping out the popular shade trees, cottonwoods were brought in to restore the tree-lined streets people desired. But cottonwoods aren't very kind to sidewalks and roads, Falkenham said, because their root systems are massive and rise up out of the pavement.

Cottonwoods get their name from the fluffy white seeds that float from the crowns in the summer. Falkenham said it takes two — a male and a female — to bring new trees to life.

"They're a neat tree to look at, an impressive species," said Falkenham. "I wish we had more of them." It's impossible to know for sure if the trees on the Big Tree program's list are actually the largest in the state, said Page. Though program coordinators will go out and measure trees nominated online, it often is up to a homeowner to point out where the big trees are. New Hampshire currently has seven of the largest trees in the country, said Page, including a sweet birch in New Boston, a white pine in Keene, a pitch pine in Newbury, a black spruce in Jefferson, an American mountain ash in Stewartstown, a black locust in Walpole, and a staghorn sumac in Conway.

For more information on the Big Tree program, including how to nominate a tree for consideration, visit extension.unh.edu/NH-Big-Tree-Program.

nfoster@newstote.com


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