PLYMOUTH TWP. – Among the old foundations that used to be a park near the St. Mary’s Cemetery, there is a champion. For decades, this champion had gone unnoticed as it maintained its spot among the forest.
The mountain laurel caught the eye of Rick Koval, a naturalist with the North Branch Land Trust. Compared to the other trees in the forest, the laurel wasn’t large, but judging it against its counterparts nearby, it was a behemoth. Koval took several measurements and consulted the Big Tree Index – maintained by the Pennsylvania Forestry Association, and confirmed it as the new state champion. The index lists the largest specimens for native and non-native trees and shrubs in Pennsylvania.
The mountain laurel has a 13-inch diameter and stands 22 feet tall. The two measurements, combined with the average circumference of the crown, give the laurel a score of 38 points, beating the previous champion by five points.
“What makes this amazing is it survived in an area that was heavily mined, which is remarkable considering this laurel is probably around 100 years old,” Koval said.
Koval has measured more than 80 champion and co-champion trees in the state over the last 20 years. His penchant for finding abnormally large trees began in the 1980s, when he found what he thought was a record staghorn sumac.
According to his measurements, the sumac destroyed the previous record. Koval contacted the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources service forester to confirm his find, but was embarrassed to find the sumac was actually an ailanthus, or tree of heaven.
“That embarrassment led me to become a bit obsessive about this, and I studied where these big trees grow,” he said.
Koval redeemed himself in 1988 when he found the state champion staghorn sumac growing near Flat Road in Plymouth Township.
Most of Koval’s finds are in southeastern Pennsylvania, but he has discovered six state champions in Luzerne County.
And he feels there are more to come.
“There are a lot of unexplored treasures here waiting to be discovered,” Koval said, adding there is a hackberry in Plymouth Township that might be another record.
Andy Duncan, a state service forester, agreed with Koval that the county has a lot of potential when it comes to big trees. He said there is a swamp white oak in Swoyersville that scored high enough for co-champion status, and a state champion yellow birch in Ricketts Glen State Park.
In some cases time isn’t on the side of many of the ancient champion trees. Duncan said large trees in urban or suburban landscapes were planted when the area was rural. But now that things are more crowded, he said, people are more apt to cut it down.
“There’s no protection for it and, in many cases, people don’t know it’s a state record tree,” Duncan said.
“The thing that is really impressive with these trees is the fact that they’ve withstood the test of time and all the land use changes that occurred over the last 200 years.”