There's a new champion in Baltimore. Not a sports team, a tree. Tucked amid a clump of loblolly pines in Druid Hill Park stands Maryland's largest striped maple.
Acer pensylvanicum, as scientists know it, looks striking in winter, when its bare branches show off its greenish bark painted with orange and gray stripes.
It isn't particularly big, as trees go. It's an understory tree, like a dogwood. This one stands 47 feet high, with a trunk that measures 21/3 feet around. But its girth is more than twice that of a pair of striped maples in Garrett and Harford counties that previously shared top billing for their species.
The new champ was spotted by Daniel Wilson, a Harford County resident who works in the city and spends his free time hunting for big trees. John Bennett, coordinator for the Maryland Big Tree Program, which keeps tabs on the state's largest trees, called Wilson a "super-volunteer."
Indeed, beneath his easygoing demeanor, Wilson, 44, is a serious big-tree buff. Largely self-taught in tree identification, he said he stalks his quarry with a camera and even a guidebook at times.
While showing off his latest find, Wilson explained that he decided to stop off in Druid Hill Park after work recently to see if he could add to the impressive list of big trees he's already discovered. He's had a hand in identifying 17 state champions so far and a like number of local stars.
"I've always walked around the woods my whole life," he said.
Druid Hill seemed like a good place to find large trees because, he said, "this park has been around so long I knew there would be something around worth looking at."
There are plenty of big trees there. The city's first large municipal park, it dates to 1860. Most of its rolling, partly forested 745 acres were the estate of George Buchanan, one of the city's founders. The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, which occupies a chunk of the park, boasts a state champion bur oak towering over its aviary, and at least a couple of city champions.
Wilson said he spied the striped maple's unusual coloration as he strolled along an unmarked brushy path in the park. He knew right away what it was, he said, because he'd seen one at a friend's place in Harford. And he said he was sure it had to be at least a local champion.
That wouldn't be hard because striped maples aren't really native here. Their range extends throughout the Northeast and down the Appalachians. In Maryland, they generally grow wild only in Garrett, Allegany, Washington and Carroll counties.
Wilson relayed his discovery to Bennett, the state's coordinator for the Big Tree program. Begun in Maryland in 1925, the effort has since gone nationwide under the sponsorship of the conservation group American Forests. Every state has a coordinator who works with volunteers to identify and measure the biggest trees locally, statewide and nationally.
The aim, explained Bennett, is to recognize and encourage owners of big trees. Ninety percent of the woody behemoths registered with the program are "backyard trees," he noted, which tend to have less competition and get more water and nutrients than their wild counterparts in the forest. Big, mature trees are important, he added, because they do more than 50 or even 100 newly planted saplings can to reduce air pollution, cast cooling shade and soak up nutrients that might otherwise foul the Chesapeake Bay.
Height alone isn't enough to be declared a champ. The program assigns trees points based on their height, trunk circumference and the spread of their branches. Wilson's striped maple rates 82 points on that scale.
Before Wilson's latest find, Baltimore had six state champion trees, out of 145 possible species. That might seem pretty good for an urban area with only about 27 percent of its land covered by trees, but Bennett noted that Montgomery County boasts 33 state champions.
Statewide, Maryland has 12 trees that are the biggest of their species anywhere in the nation. The state lost one recently, a 150-foot tall basswood in Chapman State Park in Charles County. Discovered in 2010, that tree reigned for less than two years. Foresters suspect it was toppled by storms, most likely Hurricane Irene or Tropical Storm Lee last summer.
The basswood's fate is a reminder of the fleeting nature of championship. Maryland's "biggest tree" overall, a silver maple in Cecil County, lost its place after a fall storm took out one of its two "leaders" where the trunk forked. Though it survived and remains the state champion silver maple, it lost enough foliage that a pair of sycamores in Montgomery and Frederick counties now surpasses it in overall size, or points.
Wilson's striped maple isn't a national champion for its species — yet. Its point total is third lower than trees in Virginia and Connecticut.
If it survives long enough, it could rise to the top, but that's far from certain. One of the pines crowding around it might fall, severing a limb or pulling the maple down. And there's the risk of vandalism – one of its lower branches has already been broken.
But the striped maple discovery in Druid Hill Park may lead to other notable tree finds in the city. There are other unusual trees in the vicinity that aren't native or common, he said, possibly remnants of a garden or arboretum created years ago but now overgrown with loblolly pines and invasive shrubs.
"See the one with all the bumps on it?" asked Wilson, pointing to a nearby tree with thorns pocking its trunk. "That's a Southern prickly ash, or Hercules' club. It would be very strange for it to be growing here naturally. It's a southern tree, and they don't have one listed in the state of Maryland."
Wilson hasn't notched any national champions, the ultimate distinction for serious tree hunters, but he's still looking. He spied an Eastern white pine in a Baltimore County cemetery recently that Bennett said may edge out the current state champion of that species in Montgomery County. That would bring his state champion tally to 18.
State champion trees in Baltimore cityName Trunk circumference Height Canopy spread Points
Balsam fir, Abies balsamea 8'5" 71.5' 42.5' 183
Bigleaf magnolia, Magnolia macrophylia 7'6" 70' 56' 174
Umbrella magnolia, Magnolia tripetala 1'8" 33' 24.9' 59
Striped maple, Acer pensyvlanicum 2'4" 47' 29.5' 82
Bur oak, Quercus macrocarpa 11'4" 87' 87' 245
English oak, Quercus robur 13'7" 60' 83.5' 244
Overcup oak, Quercus lyrate 8'8" 53' 55.4' 171