It's cool one August morning in a forest near the marsh, quiet but for the occasional bellowing of a few green frogs, and two experts on Maryland's flora and fauna are preparing for a sticky mission.
Earl "Bud" Reaves dons a wide-brimmed hat and pulls on a pair of hip waders.
"A bad day in the woods is better than a good day somewhere else," says Reaves, a forester for Anne Arundel County.
Chris Swarth, clad in a tie-dyed shirt, pulls a bright red flag from his jeans.
"We're going to find that tree, and we're going to mark it," says Swarth, the ecologist who directs the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in southernmost Anne Arundel County.
One night three weeks earlier, a volunteer naturalist made history by wading into the nutrient-rich water and measuring the circumference, height and breadth of "that tree" — a pumpkin ash.
It was the first time a pumpkin ash — far rarer in the state than its look-alike cousin, the green ash — had been mapped, measured and officially recorded in Maryland.
Nearly 60 feet high and 3 feet, 7 inches around, the tree was immediately named state champion for the species. Jug Bay employees learned of the event days later when a certificate came in the mail.
"It's not so much that this tree is huge, though it's good-sized for the species," says Reaves, a friend of Swarth's who is here as a volunteer this day. "It's that [this finding] shows the great variety of habitats we have here in Anne Arundel, not to mention Maryland."
The two climb into an electric cart. The anticipation is high as they pass scrub pines, red maples and sycamores, then get out near a path to the water's edge. Soon enough, it's clear as the rural air why it took a while for anyone, even experts in the field, to find and log an example of Fraxinus profunda.
Swarth, a bird specialist, is always a busy man, heading up a team of five ecologists who spend their days tracking plants and wildlife at Jug Bay, a 3,000-acre freshwater tidal wetland on the Patuxent River.
He hasn't had the time to get out and locate the champion tree, one of a cluster of its kind that were identified on the state- and federal-protected site.
Reaves, a certified arborist, is here because … well, he's the county's go-to expert on tree life, and he's interested.
"[Recording new species and] finding champions is a great way to keep people's minds on the importance of trees," says Reaves, a giant specimen himself at nearly 6 feet 6 inches.
Neither man would be tracking the state's newest star were it not for a program that has been helping catalog Maryland trees for 86 years — or for a friend of theirs who could not be here today, but who has touched them both by bringing that program back to life.
Both are very familiar with John Bennett, 63, a former special-education teacher from Cecil County. About six years ago, Bennett, then just retired, was looking for new ways to spend his time when an acquaintance invited him to a meeting of the local forestry board.
"Everyone was talking about big trees that night," Bennett said during a phone interview from his home near Elk Neck State Park. "I was hooked."
Bennett joined the board and soon learned of a program called Maryland Big Trees. Run by the Department of Natural Resources, it was dedicated to measuring and cataloging the biggest trees of every species in the state.
Using an arcane "points" system developed by Maryland's first state forester, Fred Besley, the program started in 1925 recognizing "county champion" and "state champion" individuals within every species. To date, it lists 138 state champions and 2,258 living "big trees" in Maryland.
The American Forestry Association (now called American Forests) took a version of the program national in 1940. It uses Besley's formula to determine "national champions" and keep its National Register of Big Trees up to date. All 50 states now have Big Tree programs.
Soon after Bennett joined the cause, however, DNR pruned the Maryland organization, transferring control to a group of mostly untrained volunteers in the wake of 2007 budget cuts. Bennett offered to run it for nothing. He has proved a good pollinator, developing a network of 60 unpaid specialists around the state.
One of his best specialists, Pasadena resident Reaves, is just now leading Swarth down a set of railroad-tie steps toward the sanctuary's 1,000-acre marsh and the strip of swampy soil beside it.
"Funny thing about the pumpkin ash," Reaves says. "That's the only kind of place it will grow."
In and of itself, the ash tree is not especially rare. One of its more prolific species, the green ash, pretty much blankets the eastern third of the United States, including Maryland.
Its hard wood is used to make items like baseball bats and ax handles. Its more common forms can grow in many types of terrain, from swamps (wetlands that can host woody growth) to upland (relatively dry soil).
Then there's the pumpkin ash.
This rarer form, too, has a hard wood, sheds its leaves in the fall and propagates itself through the sort of windborne, seed-bearing leaves known to schoolchildren as "helicopters" (technical name: samaras). To the untrained eye, it's hard to distinguish from the green ash that is so common in Maryland.
But it differs in several ways naturalists see as crucial. Its "helicopters" are bigger, its leaves feature a hairy underside and the lower region of its trunk is often so bulbous in shape that it can look a little like a pumpkin — hence the name.
Perhaps most important, Reaves adds, is that its seeds only flourish in the dark, relatively soupy soil that can border a freshwater marsh.
Such "riparian" (riverside) soil — increasingly rare in a time of abundant waterside building — is just hard enough to be able to hold a tree upright but soft enough from years of decaying organic matter to be able to offer a rich nutrient supply.
The pumpkin ash, Reaves says, disseminates 10 times more seeds than will ever be used, and they can land anywhere, but they take root and grow only in this kind of soil.
He and Swarth turn along a wooden boardwalk bordering the marsh. This is the structure that allows Jug Bay's visitors to see something up close that relatively few people ever do: an unspoiled freshwater tidal wetlands.
A hillside rises to the right, dotted with typical upland vegetation: mountain laurel shrubs, loblolly pine, sweetgum trees. The marsh spreads out in the distance to the left, its surface green with the leaves of spatterdock and other aquatic plants.
Between here and water's edge, though, lurks a black-looking muck that hosts leafy ferns, shaded viburnum and wild strands of poison ivy. Twenty feet away, rooted in the marsh bank, stand several trees, their trunks slightly pale.
"There they are," Reaves says, and he climbs down from the walk, taking a tape measure from the pocket of his Carhartt trousers.
To the average person, a pumpkin ash probably isn't important. But to a naturalist, it's one more unique part of a complicated ecosystem, an opportunity to understand better how that ecosystem works so that it might be more effectively preserved.
It's also rare enough, says Maryland state forester Steven W. Koehn, that the state, like several others around the country, has placed it on a list of species that warrant special efforts at conservation.
"We can study it, take samples of its seeds and grow more individuals in our state facilities," says Koehn, adding that he doesn't believe, as some do, that the species has migrated north because of conditions caused by global warming, but that Maryland is simply at the upper reaches of its native range.
Swarth chuckles a little as his colleague waddles toward the stand of trees.
Reaves' boots sink in as much as a foot, making noisy sucking sounds as he staggers forward.
"That mud looks innocent enough at first, doesn't it?" Swarth says from the safety of the boardwalk. "The soft [stuff] goes down about 10 feet."
It's worth noting that, in fact, these aren't the first pumpkin ash trees ever spotted in Maryland. That honor goes to a few that arborists have seen near the Potomac River and in bottomlands inside Piscataway Park near Accokeek.
Problem is, they were so hard to reach that no one could measure them, at least to the standards set by Besley. The Jug Bay boardwalk happens to make these individuals accessible enough to catalog.
"It's the first example of a Maryland pumpkin ash that people can find and visit," Bennett says.
Why must the arborist get so close? Besley's method, still in use today, demands it. His formula for size incorporates a tree's circumference, height and crown spread (the distance its branches spread from the trunk).
A tree's point total is the sum of its circumference as measured in inches, its height in feet, and one-fourth of its average crown spread in feet. (For those interested in context, the state's biggest living tree, a silver maple in Cecil County, weighs in at a whopping 464.5 points; its smallest state champ, a poison sumac, has 53.)
Since this tree has already been officially measured, Reaves knows its details: its 58-foot height, 43-inch circumference and average crown spread of 26.5 feet gives it a points total of 108.
But it's hard to tell with the naked eye which is the champ. Reaves will find the one that's 43 inches around, and he and Swarth will mark that for future guests.
He finally slogs his way to a likely specimen and throws his tape measure around it at the height Besley prescribed: four and a half feet.
"This is it, Chris," he says with a look of triumph. "Here's our champion."
Workplace of wonders
In the course of the quest, it has been easy to lose sight of the glories of this place. But for a moment it comes clear.
Swarth points out a tiny tree frog that sits in the muck, chirping. A few feet away is a living example of adaptation: A tree that has fallen into the water has sprouted three slender trunks that reach straight up toward the sky.
Across the water, at marsh's edge, a white heron sits on an osprey perch, casting a regal glance.
"Look at that," Swarth marvels, still captivated by his workplace of 22 years.
Jug Bay, Anne Arundel's biggest park, is something of a paradox. If we weren't careful, we could damage it just by visiting. But thanks to this boardwalk and a system of carefully planned trails, it's possible to see all this at close range without taking anything away.
Perhaps in that spirit, Swarth holds up the red marker he has brought and waves it toward Reaves.
"You know, I don't think we need to put this on the tree," he says. "Why don't we create a marker for the walk that says, 'state champion pumpkin ash to your west'? I think people can figure it out for themselves."
That seems to be fine with Reaves, though it's hard to tell. He's still busy gazing up at the pumpkin ash, running his hand along its rough trunk.
"I always thought there was only one ash [species] in Anne Arundel," he says. "Now there are two. Sure gives you something to think about."
Anne Arundel County boasts 12 state champion trees, four of which are also national champions. Trees are measured by an American Forests standard formula that incorporates height, circumference and crown.
Yellow poplar (tuliptree): 110 feet high, 429 points
*American beech: 112 feet tall, 428 points
*Chestnut oak: 99 feet high, 406 points
Southern red oak: 109 feet high, 396 points
Pecan: 106 feet high, 320 points
*Shagbark hickory: 98 feet tall, 309 points
Sassafras: 57 feet high, 262 points
Fraser fir: 76 feet tall, 160 points
Pumpkin ash: 58 feet, 108 points
Devils-Walkingstick: 39 feet tall, 63 points
Catawba rhododendron: 18 feet high, 40 points
*Poison sumac: 30 feet high, 53 points
* indicates a national champion
SOURCE: The Maryland Big Tree ProgramCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun