Baltimore's champion beech felled by age

The champion is dead - long live the champion.  The grand American beech in Mary Azrael's backyard in Mount Washington was at least 160 years old and had reigned officially as the city's premier tree of that species for nearly two decades. 

But time slowly took its toll, and Azrael reluctantly hired a tree expert to take it down Tuesday after being advised it was in such poor shape it could fall or drop a limb at any time, posing a safety hazard.

"I don’t do this lightly," Azrael said by telephone as she waited for the tree crew to arrive. "Any tree -even what people call trash trees - I hate to see a tree come down."

This beech was no trash tree. When last measured three years ago, it stood 88 feet tall, with a trunk 18 feet 2 inches around and a crown that was more than 100 feet across, according to the Maryland Big Tree Program.

"The tree predates the house, which was built in 1850," emailed Amanda Cunningham, executive director of the Baltimore Tree Trust, which is dedicated to increasing the city's forest canopy.

It had been on the big tree program's database since 1993, and though not officially listed as such then, was the city champion, according to John Bennett, who oversees the program.

Large as it was, it was only the fourth biggest in Maryland.  But that's still plenty sizable - the state boasts the US champion American beech in Lothian in Anne Arundel County, Bennett pointed out.

Azrael said she was drawn to move into the house at Beech Tree Place 14 months ago in good part because of the majestic, expressive beech in back. She pulled off the ivy growing over its massive trunk and enjoyed its grandeur, with limbs larger than most tree trunks.  But she also agonized over what to do about its apparent decay.

About three years ago, she said she was told, a large limb had fallen off, so she was concerned for the safety of neighbors and especially children who would  pass through her yard and even play or sit under the tree.  She consulted a series of arborists to see what could be done to save it, and make it safer.

"Everybody said the same thing, that it’s really weak and dangerous, rotted out inside," she said.  And when tropical superstorm Sandy blew through, Azrael said, "a lot of the bark got stripped off, which was really disturbing."

The last arborist she consulted told her it was a beautiful tree but one with very little life left, and he recommended against letting anyone stand under it.

"Kids do walk through yard and I like it that way," she said. After resisting for a long time, she made what she called the "terrible decision" to cut it down.

"I kept changing my mind," she said, "but it seems really truly it’s time." 

Azrael said she wasn't the only one reluctant to see it go, though - one neighbor came over late Monday night for one last look.

The crew removed the top of the tree Tuesday afternoon, and will return Wednesday to finish, she said.

Azrael said she intends to leave about five feet of the trunk standing, and she hopes to salvage some good wood from the limbs for making into furniture and other objects. Azrael called that "small consolation, but it's something."

She's planning to plant some new trees, and install some benches to encourage more people to enjoy her yard, she said.  There already are two smaller beech trees there, she added, which she suspects are offspring of the fallen giant.

"I’ll take good care of them," Azrael vowed. 

With the demise of one champion, the question now is where is the next biggest beech in Baltimore?  Bennett of the Big Tree Program said his files indicate there was one in a yard on West Lake Avenue that might take the title now, but it was last measured in 1989. Whether it's even still there is unknown. 

So if anyone has a really big Fagus grandifolia, aka American beech, or knows of one, contact John Bennett of the Big Tree Program,  To learn more about the program, and how trees are rated, go to

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad