Aiken has a new national champion.
It’s not a basketball squad, a golf team, a horse or even a boxer.
Instead, the latest No. 1 with local ties is a tree – a longleaf pine that stands in Hitchcock Woods.
Based on three measurements and a points system, the woody perennial plant is the largest of its kind in the United States.
Aiken’s longleaf pine is 105 feet tall and has an average crown spread of 56 feet.
The circumference of its trunk is 140 inches, which is more than 11 feet.
Those statistics earned the tree 259 points and a place in American Forests’ National Register of Championship Trees for 2019.
Its status as the top longleaf pine became official earlier this month.
American Forests is a nonprofit conservation organization that is headquartered in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a special tree,” said Hitchcock Woods Superintendent Bennett Tucker, who nominated the longleaf pine to be considered for national champion status. “I think the take home message is that it is another reason to celebrate the resources of the local Aiken community, the gift the Hitchcock family left to Aiken and the Hitchcock Woods Foundation.”
Hitchcock Woods, which covers approximately 2,100 acres, is one of this country’s largest urban forests.
After the death of Lulie Hitchcock in a hunting accident, the Hitchcock family donated 1,120 acres of forestland and established a foundation to protect and preserve it.
Other property was added later.
Even way back in the 1930s, the champion longleaf pine had been around for a long time.
Tucker estimated the tree is “300 to 350, or 400” years old.
But Tucker didn’t realize such a big longleaf pine existed until several years ago.
“I think it was probably 2012 or so,” he said.
Tucker and Dion Meeling, a former woods technician he worked with, noticed there were some trees that had come down in a storm on a slope below a ridgeline.
“We were cutting up some stumps from those ‘windthrows,’ and we looked up and saw this monster of a longleaf,” Tucker said. “It was kind of hidden by midstory trees and brush, but we realized it was a massive tree.”
When others who knew trees well saw it, they told Tucker that the tree’s size might make it unique.
Tucker and Dr. Ken Perrine, a photographer and author, measured the longleaf pine, and Tucker submitted the information to American Forests last year.
There are multiple reasons why the tree has been able to live so long and grow so big, Tucker believes.
Its location on a slope below a ridgeline protects it from the wind. Below the sandy soil, there probably is clay that provides good support, Tucker said. That clay also retains moisture better than sand, he added, so the longleaf pine presumably has access to a good water supply.
“More than likely, there is a pretty good seepage area where the moisture kind of surfaces where the tree is located,” Tucker said.
The efforts to protect and preserve Hitchcock Woods also have contributed to the longleaf pine’s longevity.
“This land has been taken care of,” said Randy Wolcott, a member of the Hitchcock Woods Foundation’s board of trustees. “There were small homesteads on it, but it wasn’t plowed over and put into agriculture. And it never was timbered to the point that a lot of the big trees were cut down.”
While Tucker, Wolcott and others associated with Hitchcock Woods are proud to have a champion in their forest, there are no plans to put up signs showing where the longleaf pine is located because of concerns that individuals or a large number of visitors might damage the tree and its environment.
The board of trustees hasn’t discussed a policy yet on how to protect the longleaf pine and how much to make the general public aware of its location, according to Wolcott.
“Our feeling is that we want to take care of it because it is special,” he said. “If anyone is interested in the tree, we would show them where it is because we want people who will appreciate it to see it.”
The national champion longleaf pine also is on the list of South Carolina champion trees, which is maintained by Clemson University.