Trees Are the Champions

Awbury Discovers New State Titleholders

State champion trees are rare and exciting finds. Despite our extensive arboretum and history, we’ve only had two on the Pennsylvania Big Tree List — a river birch (Betula nigra) listed as #3 of its kind in Pennsylvania, and a golden raintree (Koelruteria paniculata), listed as #2. But we were giddy to learn last December that we’ve got more titleholders than we knew.

Master Arborist Aaron Greenberg, State Coordinator of the Pennsylvania Champion Tree Program, and Anthony Aiello, Director of Horticulture and Curator of Morris Arboretum, spent a cold December day measuring trees at the Arboretum. Aiello had noticed some rather large specimens at Awbury and had a hunch that some of them might qualify as State Champion Trees.

American Elm. All photos courtesy of Hideko Secrest

“What is a Champion Tree?” you might ask. According to the Pennsylvania Champion Tree Program website, “The largest tree of each species is considered the State Champion.” But they also recognize impressive “runners up.” Pretty straightforward, but the formula for scoring trees is a bit more complicated: circumference (inches) + height (feet) + ¼ average crown spread (feet) = total points. The trunk circumference is measured 4.5 feet above the ground.

So, what did Greenberg and Aiello find? Apparently, Awbury is home to the new State Champion English holly tree (Ilex aquifolium), coming in at 103 points! We also have a lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) listed as #3 in Pennsylvania, (128 points); an American hop-hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) listed as #5 in the state (#1 in Philadelphia), with 133 points; a sugar maple (Acer saccharum) listed as #5 in the state, (254 points), and the only one on the Philadelphia register; a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) as #6 in the state (#2 in Philadelphia), with 127 points; a gingko tree (Gingko biloba) as #11 in the state (#3 in the city), coming in at a whopping 297 points; and an American elm (Ulmus americana) as #13 in the state (#2 in Philadelphia county) at 291 points.

This last tree is in some ways our most impressive, as most American elms were wiped out by Dutch Elm Disease (DED), a fungal infection first found in the United States in 1928, after having decimated the elms of Europe. DED raced across America, causing catastrophic die-offs, especially in cities, where trees were often grouped together in groves or rows.

Lacebark Pine

According to the New York Times (5 December 1989, “New Varieties of Elm Raise Hope of Rebirth for Devastated Tree”), of the estimated 77 million elms in North America in 1930, over 75% were lost by 1989. Horticulturalists estimate that only approximately 1 in 100,000 American elm trees is DED-tolerant, most known survivors simply having escaped exposure to the disease. We do not know whether Awbury’s specimen is DED-resistant, or just lucky, but we certainly feel lucky to have it.

Greenberg reflects, “Because I live in Philadelphia, it’s always nice to find some really big trees in Philadelphia County to add to the list! Awbury Arboretum has such an interesting and unique collection, and I had a great time measuring some amazing trees. I can’t wait to come back in the spring as well. There is a certain oak that we couldn’t positively ID with the leaves off, but once we know the species, I’m sure it will make the list!”

English Holly

With spring just getting started, there is abundant majesty yet to be seen. Come visit our trees, whether Champion or not, and drink in the peace and beauty of nature.

All of the trees mentioned above are listed on the Champion Trees of Pennsylvania website at

About Awbury
Awbury Arboretum (the former Cope family estate) transports visitors from city streets into a country retreat that is the largest remaining oasis of open space in Germantown. Trails weave through 55 acres landscaped in the English romantic style, with open meadows, ponds, woods and rolling hills. The Copes lent their Quaker sense of aesthetics to this world-class arboretum; in 1870, they hired William Saunders, designer of the Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C., to bring their vision to fruition. Today, Awbury’s mission is to preserve and interpret their historic house and landscape, in order to connect the community with nature and history. Awbury is free and open to the public every day (dawn til dusk). More info at


About Hideko Secrest 2 Articles
Hideko Secrest is the editor of The Leaflet, Awbury Arboretum’s newsletter, and is Awbury’s Grants Manager and Summer Camp Director. She also teaches freshman English at Community College of Philadelphia.

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