Fargo has 26 of state's biggest trees, holds them dear
FARGO — Some of the giants that line Fargo’s streets, tower over backyards and cast long shadows in city parks are more than just big trees. They’re champions.
Of the roughly 75 types of trees on the North Dakota Register of Champion Trees, 26 are in Fargo – more than any other city in the state.
Since 1984, the North Dakota Forest Service (yes, it’s an actual agency) has been keeping track of the state’s largest trees, including native species like juniper, boxelder and cottonwood as well as non-natives like honeylocust, Siberian elm and Norway spruce.
“These are just some massive trees that you wouldn’t expect to see in North Dakota,” said Joe Zeleznik, a forestry specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service. “These are real gems out there.”
There’s a host of reasons why Fargo has so many champion trees. Zeleznik said it may just be that more people look for big trees here. But what definitely gives the city’s trees a boost is more moisture than other parts of the state, he said.
Another reason is NDSU and its tree research, said Glenda Fauske, a Forest Service employee who maintains the champion tree register. University researchers “planted a lot of different trees early on and now those non-native trees, several of them are champions,” she said.
Fargo has just over 56,000 trees maintained by city crews, said City Forester Scott Liudahl. Many of the bigger ones are in older neighborhoods on the near north and south sides, including over 7,000 American elms that have avoided death by Dutch elm disease, he said.
Liudahl said he had a hand in measuring an American elm on Ninth Street South that’s the reigning state champion at a height of 87 feet. The city’s tallest tree appears to be an 89-foot silver maple on South University Drive.
“I get excited about trees, especially big ones,” he said. “To me, this living organism that continues to function year after year after year is amazing.”
Sometimes homeowners don’t even know they have a champion on their property. This was the case with Zachary Dawson who has a 32-foot-tall white fir in his yard along Eighth Street South.
“Certainly, one of the attractions of living in that part of Fargo is the mature trees,” Dawson said.
A tree’s value
Maybe more than other states, North Dakotans have a close bond with their limited number of trees, which struggle against the whims of a harsh prairie climate.
"It takes a long time to grow in North Dakota because we have such a short growing season,” Fauske said. “So people really value their trees.”
Take Karen Murie and the champion apricot tree that fills her front yard in north Fargo. The non-native tree was there when she bought the house in 1984.
Murie, 68, says the tree’s fruit isn’t as big and sweet as its Southern counterparts, but is still good for making jam and eating, fresh or dried. The tree’s blossoms are also easy on the eyes and nose.
“The blooms are pink, and they’re very fragrant. You can smell them when you walk by,” she said. “It’s just gorgeous when it’s filled out.”
With low sprawling limbs, the tree’s a magnet for young climbers. “Our son used to just lay in there, and our cat would lay nose to nose with him,” she said.
Murie’s apricot tree is 31 feet tall, but height alone doesn’t make a champion.
In scoring a tree, the Forest Service uses a point system that also takes into account the trunk’s circumference at 4.5 feet off the ground and the spread of the treetop, or crown. Foresters use a device known as a clinometer or sometimes a drone to measure a tree, Fauske said.
North Dakota’s largest and tallest tree is a cottonwood in Ransom County, with a height of 115 feet, a crown spread of 110 feet and a girth of 26 feet, 6 inches.
West Fargo has no champion trees. Minnesota keeps a registry of big trees, but none are in Moorhead or elsewhere in Clay County.
Anyone who spots a big tree in North Dakota and thinks it may be a champion can submit a form to the Forest Service, which reviews nominations every December. Of the four new champions discovered in 2016, Mark Lewing found three of them in Larimore while visiting his daughter.
The tree hunter
Lewing, 70, is what’s known as a tree hound, someone who’s always scanning the horizon for big trees. The rangy outdoorsman spent 31 years as a forester for the state of Montana.
“It’s just awesome to see a huge tree,” he said. “Especially if you can find one bigger than someone else’s, it’s just a kick.”
Lewing lives in Stevensville, Mont. His name shows up 94 times as a nominator on his home state’s Register of Big Trees, and several of his Montana champions also hold national titles.
When Lewing gets a tip about a big tree, he’ll spend days scouring the mountains for it. But many of the champions he’s found have been hiding in plain sight in towns or next to highways.
One day while hiking through a thicket of invasive buckthorn trees in North Dakota, he found a big one and nominated it. However, the tree was not named a champion because, according to the register, buckthorn “is considered an undesirable species in North Dakota.”
The rejection surprised Lewing, who pointed out that Montana’s register includes two types of buckthorn trees, one of them he nominated. “To me, a big tree is a big tree,” he said. “I don’t really care whether it’s invasive or not. That’s somebody else’s political problem, not mine.”
The North Dakota register sees a fair amount of turnover as bigger trees unseat smaller ones. And champions, like all trees, can die whether it’s from a disease, a chainsaw or a strong wind.
In June 2013, a storm killed the state champion Colorado blue spruce in Sue Hoeck’s front yard on 10th Street South in Fargo.
A bolt of lightning struck the top of the 98-foot-tall tree while her husband was sitting on the front porch. The blast sent debris flying through the neighborhood. “My husband couldn’t hear for a few minutes afterward,” she said.
What was left of the tree was taken down, and Hoeck plans to turn the stump into a flowerbed. She said her family still misses the tree.
“Everybody always knew where we lived because of the tree,” she said.
For information on how to nominate a tree for the North Dakota Register of Champion Trees or to read the register, visit https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/ndfs/about-north-dakota-forestry/champion-trees-of-north-dakota .