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Chicago Urban Gardening

The day to day experiences of a University of Illinois Extension Urban Horticulture Educator in Chicago, Illinois

Largest Tree in Illinois

Posted by Ron Wolford -

In the beauty pageant of trees, size is what matters most. Instead of evening gown, swimsuit and talent, the categories for consideration are circumference, total height and average crown spread. And the winner is.... a majestic sycamore tree on private property in Christian County that measures 31 feet around, 119 feet tall and has an average crown span of 134 feet. The first runner-up is a bald cypress tree in the Cache River State Natural Area in southern Illinois.

The base of this state champion sycamore tree (and largest tree in the state) is buried beneath 6-8 feet of sediment from floodwaters; Dick Little (left) and the late Ernie Williams (right) are essentially standing 6-8 feet above the base of the tree due to siltation from the adjacent river.

Statistics: 31 feet in circumference, 119 feet tall, 134 feet average crown spread, Christian County, IL. Nominated in the year 2000. Total Points = 525.

Sycamore, bald cypress, eastern cottonwood and some varieties of oak are the only serious contenders for the title of largest Illinois tree according to University of Illinois Extension forester Jay Hayek. Hayek developed an Illinois Extension Forestry website that manages the Illinois Big Tree Register. The site is located at

"I probably average one or two requests per day on the 'Ask a Forester' feature on the site," said Hayek. "People want to know how much their black walnut tree is worth, what kind of tree to plant in their backyard, and I get a lot of questions from landowners who need help managing their forest land."

Although Illinois ranks fifth in demand for wood, it ranks 32nd in the nation for production of wood. Hayek said the irony is that even though Illinois currently has around 100 sawmills, the state exports more than 25 percent of its sawlogs and 80 percent of veneer logs to primary manufacturers outside state boundaries. "Some of the exported logs are sawn into lumber and veneers and then imported back again," he said. "Illinois needs more primary and secondary forest products manufacturing facilities – it's a shame our economy can't benefit more from Illinois timber."

Converting marginal floodplain farmland to early successional floodplain forests is another one of Hayek's missions. "When a farmer reports crop loss due to flooding for three to five consecutive years, I encourage them to think about tree planting through state and federal conservation programs such as the Forestry Development Act and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). It's a way for them to diversify the landscape and their portfolio - manage their land with natural buffers and make a reasonable return on their investment," said Hayek. In 2005, Illinois landowners received $20 million from selling timber, so there is money to be made.

"Illinois is famous for its corn and soybeans, but that same fertile agricultural soil is perfect for growing trees, too," said Hayek. "And, just about any tree planted in a good environment will grow rapidly."

The Illinois Extension Forestry website includes links to many government and educational sites about forestry. "Rather than reinventing the wheel, the site has links to the best sites for tree identification, forest management, selling timber, and other similar information," said Hayek. "This site provides the best education on forestry and unbiased information and links to a lot more."

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