There are a couple of special trees near Rabbit Foot Lodge in Springdale.
Champions, in fact.
The city can now boast it has two of the biggest trees of their species on land that's accessible to the public. A southern catalpa, standing about 65 feet tall with a trunk more than 20 feet around, looms near the horseshoe bend of the driveway at the lodge. A hackberry also stands nearby, about 50 feet from the creek running through the property.
The hackberry is actually a co-champion with one in Boone County, but who's counting?
The state Forestry Division, that's who. The division keeps an updated list with about 120 champion trees on its website. Each tree listed represents the largest recorded of a particular species in the state. The trees can be on public or private land, but they must be native to the state or naturalized. Naturalized trees are those introduced from outside the state and reproduced and dispersed in a new environment.
Being designated a champion does not provide any sort of legal protection for a tree. It does help raise awareness about the state's natural beauty and may make it little harder for anyone who wants to chop one down. These trees are well-known among nature enthusiasts.
The state notified the city last week of the trees' champion status, said Kaleb Lathrom, horticulturist with the city's Public Works Department. They're the only champion trees in Springdale, he said.
The city plans to take seeds from the trees, grow the new trees a bit and distribute them to the public so more trees like the two champions can grow big and healthy, Lathrom said.
"It's a really good way of keeping track of where these special and important trees are," he said. "Obviously, logging has taken out most of the largest trees in our entire nation and especially in our state. Finding ones like these helps us preserve their genetics."
The trees are among good company. There are more than 20 champion trees in Benton and Washington counties.
As of 2016, a total of 436 kinds of woody plants were known to occur in the wild in Arkansas, comprising 419 species plus another 17 varieties and subspecies, according to Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Of these, 185 can be considered trees, 189 are best described as shrubs and 62 are woody vines.
HEART OF A CHAMPION
The state quantifies champion trees with a "bigness index." The less-than-scientific-sounding metric is calculated using the circumference of the trunk, the tree's height and its canopy spread. The tree with the highest bigness index is deemed the champion, though there are a few co-champions.
For instance, the hackberry in Boone County has a bigness index of 278. The Springdale hackberry is not far behind with a 273 bigness index. The southern catalpa in Springdale beats out both with a 337 bigness index.
The pair of Springdale trees lie within J.B. Hunt Park, near Rabbit Foot Lodge. The city owns the property and has a conservation easement with the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust placed on 30 acres surrounding the lodge. That means the trees are protected in perpetuity.
They've earned it. Lathrom said the hackberry is likely about 100 years old and the southern catalpa has to be at least 250 years old.
Karen Compton and her husband were the most recent residents of Rabbit Foot Lodge before the city bought the property in 2015. Her family has fond memories of the place, especially of the giant catalpa.
Compton's kids could basically run up the catalpa with its slanted, twisted trunk and climb it. There was a family of groundhogs living under it at one time. Bees would take refuge in its canopy as they tried to find a new hive. Not to mention the catalpa "worms" -- caterpillars that munch exclusively on catalpa leaves and turn into catalpa sphinx moths.
"It was its own little ecosystem," she said.
The catalpa left such an impression on Compton's grandmother that she remembered it decades after seeing it the first time. Compton's grandmother went with her husband to a banker's conference at Rabbit Foot Lodge when J. William Fulbright and his family lived there in the late 1930s and had a picnic on the lawn. When Compton's family moved there in the 1980s, Compton said her grandmother remembered that tree specifically when she came to visit.
Compton applied to get the catalpa listed as a champion tree in the 1980s, but it fell short. She said she was glad to see the tree get the recognition it deserves today.
"Anybody who ever visited there will remember and know what tree you're talking about," she said.
Old growth trees like the ones in Springdale have an environmental impact that's difficult to replace after they're gone, said Colin Massey, horticulture agent with the Washington County office of the University of Arkansas System Cooperative Extension Service. In addition to sequestering carbon and providing oxygen to breathe, older trees typically have a sprawling root system that soaks up water and reduces runoff into streams. The roots also help hold soil in place, creating less erosion, he said.
"When you think about environmental value and function, it goes beyond oxygen and carbon like most of us are used to thinking about," Massey said.
There also are immeasurable benefits. Massey said he still remembers catching catalpa worms off the trees behind his house in Fayetteville as a kid and using them to fish. People often have fond childhood memories associated with trees. In that way, champion trees help connect people to nature, he said.
Jeremy Williams, owner of Tree Climbers, a tree service company in Fayetteville, is the only certified master arborist in the state and has measured several champion and champion-contending trees in the region. Measuring the trees can be tricky, he said, especially when it comes to height.
The circumference is easy enough -- that just requires wrapping a tape measure around the trunk. The crown spread or canopy is measured with a throw line over the farthest-reaching branches on each side.
But measuring height?
Some arborists use a stick and stand back with an arm held out, but that's not the most accurate method. There also exists a device called a hypsometer. The machine calculates a tree's trigonometry with ultrasound or radar. Williams said that's his least-preferred way to measure a tree's height because the results can be inaccurate. A hypsometer also can't be used on a tree in a forest because there's no clear line of sight.
Williams prefers the old-fashioned way -- climbing a tree to the very top and dropping a tape measure down. Not everyone can climb a tree, though.
Williams said he's seen the southern catalpa in Springdale and was impressed. Those kinds of trees are called heritage trees for a reason, he said. They've experienced history and hardship like no one living on Earth and survived it all.
"The first thing that comes to mind is a sense of awe and humility," Williams said. "It's almost like David and Goliath, where I am just this little runt of a human and this amazing tree has been here 200 or 300 years-- who knows exactly?
"If this tree could talk, what could it say?"
Champion trees of Northwest Arkansas
The following list breaks down the number of champion trees by the state Forestry Division in Northwest Arkansas:
• Black locust at the Confederate Cemetery
• Chickasaw plum at Sweetbriar Park
• Norway spruce at Wilson Park
• Sugar maple at the Confederate Cemetery (co-champ with one on Central Avenue in Bentonville)
• Hackberry near Rabbit Foot Lodge (co-champ with one in Boone County)
• Southern catalpa near Rabbit Foot Lodge
• American smoke-tree on Cedar Street
• Northern catalpa near Elm and Fourth streets
• Northern red oak at Hobbs State Park
• Siberian elm north of Frisco Station Mall
• American chestnut hybrid at Compton Gardens
• Blackgum near Crystal Bridges
• Eastern white pine near Crystal Bridges
• Green ash at Peel Museum & Botanical Garden (co-champ with one in Benton in Saline County)
• Pagoda dogwood at Compton Gardens
• Sugar maple on Central Avenue (co-champ one at Confederate Cemetery in Fayetteville)
• Yellowwood at Compton Gardens
• Chinese chestnut in Siloam Springs
• Flowering dogwood on private land in Benton County
• Ozark chinquapin on private land in Benton County
• Roughleaf dogwood in Siloam Springs
• American basswood in Lincoln
• Black oak in Prairie Grove (co-champ with one in Magness in Independence County)
See a list of all the champion trees in Arkansas at:
Source: Arkansas Department of Agriculture