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Carlos collecting Quercus ×alentejana (Q. faginea × Q. pyrenaica) in northeastern Portugal for his PhD thesis © Carlos Vila-Viçosa
An interview with Portuguese oak conservationist Dr. Carlos...
Amy Byrne | Apr 19, 2024
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Pages from Gert's book
It was a great pleasure for me to be able to write about my...
Gert Fortgens | Feb 15, 2024

Plant Focus

Quercus crassipes acorns with inrolled cupule margin
One of the more well-known Mexican oaks in cultivation.

New Champions in New Mexico

I enjoy finding giant trees, and always keep an eye open and a tape measure handy. Some of my finds are only giants in the sense that they are large for their species, such as my National Champion Prunus hortulana (30 ft tall). When my family and I got the chance to traipse around New Mexico in the fall of 2016, acorns and photos were not the only things on my mind. I also brought my tape measure. For those not familiar with U.S. champion tree programs, the formula of height (feet) + circumference (inches) + 25% of average crown spread (feet) = total points. I personally do not care for the fact that only one quarter of the spread is counted, but that’s a fight for another day.

Q. oblongibolia
Quercus oblongifolia, County Road 368, New Mexico

Monster Silverleaf Thanks to Michael Meléndrez’s knowledge of the state, he put us on some large specimens of Quercus hypoleucoides in the Gila National Forest on the first day of the 2016 Tour. The largest measured in at 81 ft tall, 84 in circ., and 63 ft spread for a total of 180.75 points. That is good for the new NM State Champion for its species. On that trip we also measured the new State Champion Englemann spruce (Picea englemannii) on top of the Sierra Blanca range, which came in at 300 (145 ft tall, 145 in circ., and 40 ft spread) total points.

Elk Mountain Mammoth In the fall of 2017, Michael Meléndrez held a second installment of the previous year’s trip through New Mexico. Again, armed with my trusty tape measure I was anxious to get going. Michael had told us we would be seeing some huge Gambel oaks (Q. gambelii) on this first portion of the Tour and he was not kidding. After seeing a number of very large single-trunk Gambel oaks along a private drive, we ended up on Elk Mountain in the Gila NF. Michael knew of a huge Gambel oak growing in a mixed stand of ponderosa pine and Arizona cypress. This tree measured 75 ft tall, 221 in circ., 54 ft spread for a total of 309.5. It is the new NM State Champion and potential National Champion.

Q. gambellii
Author next to New Mexico Champion and potential National Champion Quercus gambelii, off NM-159, Elk Mountain, New Mexico, 18½ ft girth

Enormous Netleaf The next day found us exploring Catwalk Canyon, near Glenwood, NM. We were excited to get a chance to see netleaf oak (Q. rugosa) among other desirable species. As we scrambled up through the canyon (past a certain point, the trail was wiped out by a flood) I noted a large Q. rugosa that I planned to stop and measure on the way back to the truck. After a nice walk, I stopped to measure the tree in question and with a score of 118 total points it is the new NM State Champion.

Diptych 1
Left: New NM State Champion Quercus rugosa - Right: Quercus grisea, Coronado National Forest, Hidalgo County, 17½-ft girth

Gargantuan Gray Driving through the Coronado National Forest, in Hidalgo County, to see the National Champion Q. grisea, we walked up the little draw where Michael thought it was. We looked and looked, but couldn’t seem to locate it. After about an hour, we finally found its remains. Apparently, it was hit by lightning, or a forest fire took it out and all that remained was a charred stump. A bit let down, we continued along Geronimo Trail, enjoying the flora. About a mile from where the former champ once stood, I saw a huge tree down in a bottom along a dry stream. I hollered at Michael to stop the truck and I bailed off into the head-high brush as Michael reminded me to watch out for rattlesnakes! The risk was worth it, as the huge gray oak was in fantastic shape, had lots of unique character and measured 60 ft tall, 203 in circ., and 72 ft spread for a total of 281 points. It is the new NM Champion and potential National Champion.

Grant County Giant Following a lead shared with us by Anna Forester, we drove to Grant County, NM to visit the site of a large Emory oak (Q. emoryi). Tsama Pineda led us through the property to a huge oak. It was truly impressive and had a large spread. Remains of what I could only imagine were an old mountain lion kill were lodged in the tree, which only added to the coolness factor. This new State Champion and potential National Champion tree measures 60 ft tall, 209 in circ., and 75 ft spread for a total of 287.75.

Duptych 2
Tour leader Mike Meléndrez next to 17½-ft girthed new State Champion Quercus emoryi (left), and its 75-foot wide canopy (right), Grant County, New Mexico

Big Blue We headed towards Lincoln, NM to revisit the area made famous by Billy the Kid and his Regulators in the 1880s. Nearing the Capitan Mountain Range, around the town of Arabela, we began to see Mexican blue oak(Q. oblongifolia). We stopped to check for acorns and I measured a tree I thought was a large specimen. Happy about that encounter, we continued on. However, a mile or two down the road we spotted a truly huge specimen growing right along the road. It made the first one seem puny and measured 48 ft tall, 161 in circ., and 54 ft spread for a total of 222.5. This again is the new NM state champion for its species and is the pending National Champion.

Quercus oblongifoia
Mexican blue oak, 13½ ft girth, near Arabela, NM

A Bonney Chinkapin The last standout on this trip was another from Lincoln County where Billy the Kid (aka William H. Bonney) once roamed. Almost by mistake, we stumbled upon a fantastic specimen of chinkapin oak (Q. meuhlenbergii), not a huge tree by eastern standards for this species, but certainly large in this region of the country. We noticed a large chinkapin oak near an old homestead. We wanted to take a look at it but no one was home to get permission from. Then as we were leaving, a neighbor came down and asked us what we were doing. When we explained we wanted to take a look at his neighbor’s tree, he mentioned that he had one even larger, and gladly took us to his tree. It was larger indeed and even after losing a portion of the canopy years earlier it still measured 45 ft tall, 138 inches circ., and 51 ft spread for a total of 192.75 points. Not large enough for National Champion contention, but it is the new NM State Champion for the species.

Diptych 3
New Mexico State Champion Quercus muehlenbergii, Lincoln County, 45 × 51 feet, 11½ ft girth
One of the challenges facing intrepid hunters of giant trees in New Mexico...

Again, I’d like to thank Michael Meléndrez for leading the Tour and sharing with us areas and trees not often seen by others.

Photos © Ryan Russell