A black willow tree in Marine on St. Croix has been named national champion, bigger than any other known example of the species in the United States.
Last year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources declared the tree the state winner. While it appeared to score higher than the previous national champion (tree size is calculated from height, trunk circumference, and crown diameter), the application and review process took some time.
The willow was finally crowned champion on September 5, replacing a New Hampshire tree.
The news provides an opportunity to celebrate big, old trees, and their critical role in the St. Croix Valley and around the world.
“Big, old trees are not simply enlarged versions of young trees,” Dr. Jerry F. Franklin told American Forests in 2013. “Big, old trees have suffered the slings and arrows of climate, insects and diseases, and so they typically have a lot of features like cavities, which are really important from the standpoint of wildlife.”
Franklin was co-author of a 2012 article about the importance of such trees around the world, and how they are dwindling. The paper reported that large, old trees provide shelter for up to 30 percent of species such as mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians in some ecosystems.
That is supported by an observation from a neighbor of Marine’s big black willow.
“It is filled with birdsong in the springtime and orioles use it to build dramatically high, swinging nests,” Ann Kirn said.
According to the scientists, trees also store a lot of climate-change causing carbon, create habitat with rich soil and diverse species of other plants, are critical to managing water, and provide fruits, flowers, foliage, and nectar. They also provide “focal points” for wildlife to gather for pollination and reproduction, and much more.
Protecting large trees appears to be more important than ever, as the number of such specimens declines.
“Just as large-bodied animals such as elephants, tigers, and cetaceans have declined drastically in many parts of the world, a growing body of evidence suggests that large old trees could be equally imperiled,” the study says.
The reasons they are imperiled are as broad as the 150-foot wide crown of Marine’s black willow. Large, old trees are dwindling because they are either removed intentionally during logging, land clearing, agricultural, fire management, and for human safety. They also die faster due to drought, wildfires, invasive plants, air pollution, disease, and insect attacks. The likelihood of new trees growing into large old trees is also reduced due to overgrazing by deer and other wildlife, or domestic livestock, by competition with non-native species, and unnatural fire.
Because the Marine black willow is located on private property, its exact location is not being disclosed. It is growing in the lower part of the village, just over 100 yards from the St. Croix River.