If someone told you that Florida has more official “Big Trees” than any other U.S. state, you might be dubious. Does Florida have any trees that could compare to the biggest Big Tree of them all, the General Sherman sequoia in California, which stands 275 feet tall with a girth of 998 inches?
But in fact Florida does have some of the tallest, fattest and broadest trees — of their species — in the nation, and many of them are in South Florida. Like a 37-foot-tall Jamaican nettletree at an urban park on Biscayne Bay. Or a 41-foot Florida licaria on private property in Homestead that was a seedling in a 4-inch pot when its owner won it in a raffle.
And Mark Torok is here to prove it.
As a senior forester with the Florida Forest Service, Torok’s assignments include taking the measure of big trees to see if they qualify for listing on the National Register of Big Trees and a similar state register. He’s responsible for the area from Palm Beach to Key West and figures he’s measured about 200 trees in the last seven years.
The National Big Tree program was established about 74 years ago and is run by American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization. Based on mathematic formulas factoring in height, trunk circumference and canopy size, trees deemed to be the heftiest of their type are listed on the national register and the Florida Champion Tree Register, started in 1975.
The national register features about 870 species. Florida holds 130 reigning champion titles, more than any other state.
The reason South Florida is so well represented, according to Torok and others affiliated with the tree-tracking programs, is the region’s diverse and sometimes unique tropical and sub-tropical habitats. Some trees, such as green buttonwood, wild tamarind and West Indian mahogany, grow primarily or exclusively in South Florida — at least within the United States — so naturally the national champions are from Florida.
With the diversity of champs comes a diversity of heights and shapes and occasionally wacky variations among trees. Some national champs are relatively petite, like a 16-foot cocoplum in Pompano Beach, that don’t stand out amid other greenery.
The most substantial champion tree in Florida, and perhaps the trickiest tree Torok has measured, is the national champ for native Shortleaf Fig (Wild Banyan) in the Florida Keys. The 48-foot-tall tree at Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park sports a trunk that measures an impressive 444 around and a crown spread of 76 feet.
Perhaps the tallest tree in South Florida is a 115-foot korina tree at Flamingo Gardens in Davie. The statuesque tree, which is native to West Africa, is visible from miles away, said Laura Tooley, director of horticulture for Flamingo Gardens. “It’s like standing next to a skyscraper,” she said.
The korina tree is among about 20 state champion trees at Flamingo Gardens, Tooley said. Rules for inclusion on the state register are a little looser and allow naturalized non-native species that are excluded from the national register. Many of the state champion trees at Flamingo Gardens are not eligible to be national champions.
Nationally, about 200 species have no champion tree.
Some hobbyists enjoy scouting out big trees, and are rewarded with their name featured as the “nominator.” That’s when Torok steps in.
Measuring trees is basically a low-tech task, with no ladder or climbing required. To figure out a tree’s height, Torok employs a tool that measures angles of a slope, figuring in the base of the tree and the tallest part on top. Figuring the angles for the mathematic calculations often requires stepping back 100 feet or more from the target tree, a move that sometimes involves navigating swampy areas, rocky land, busy roads, fences or dense heavy vegetation. “It’s a little tricky sometimes,” Torok says.
For measuring trunk circumference and canopy, a logger’s tape measure typically works nicely, especially when someone else is holding the other end.
In addition to the competitive element, the Big Tree program provides useful environmental information, Torok said, such as determining which trees do best in which types of environments, and which types are able to withstand hurricanes and other storms. Some of the trees, including several champions at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, are hundreds of years old.
Among the champs are three redberry stoppers, deemed co-champs because they are within a specific point range of each other, along the parking lot at Vizcaya. Redberry stoppers are exclusive to a specific geographic range of South Florida, and many of them were removed as the region built up, said Ian Simpkins, Vizcaya’s chief horticulturist. He estimates the trees are at least 300 years old.
Like other champion trees on the property that date back centuries, the redberry stoppers are about 42 feet tall and not particularly showy. “They sort of blend in,” Simpkins said. “Most people don’t notice these trees.”
Simpkins makes a point of pointing them out on tours. “I think it’s awesome,” he said. “I think it’s just the coolest thing ever.”
Some of the national champions are at private homes. David King, a former ranger at Everglades National Park, said his property in Homestead features several national and state champion trees, including a fiddlewood, which the family enjoys because two of the children played the viola, he said. Another favorite is a Florida licaria, which he won at a raffle when it was a seedling. Today it stands 41 feet tall and has a crown that spreads 29 feet across.
In addition to evaluating trees, Torok also is proud to be a nominator of Big Trees. While he was working at Kester Park in Pompano Beach, two cocoplum trees grabbed his attention. Usually, cocoplums are more like hedges in stature. The two at the park were 16 feet tall and 19 feet tall, and were designated as a national champion and challenger, which is sort of a runner up.
Those titles are special to Torok for another reason: He used to play T-ball and soccer as a kid in that park.