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The largest live oak tree in Texas at San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge.

It’s not pretty, but it’s pretty big

Last year, I visited the second largest live oak tree in Texas, a sprawling 1,000-year-old behemoth on the edge of Goose Island State Park. The burly “Big Tree” with the sprawling crown held the state title until something even bigger emerged in the bottomlands of Brazoria County in 2003.

That, I wanted to see.

"The Big Tree" - a 1,000-year-old live oak at Goose Island State Park

“The Big Tree” – a 1,000-year-old live oak at Goose Island State Park

So on a foggy afternoon last week I drove out to San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge. The champion tree lies at the end of the refuge’s Oak Trail, which lies at the end of a short grassy road, which lies behind an unmarked gate just up the road from the refuge entrance. It’s open to the public, but to get in, you have to stop at the refuge field office for the combination to the gate lock.

The short, flat trail winds less than mile through a forest of oaks draped in Spanish moss and across a stretch of boardwalk framed with Palmetto fans.

When I saw the tree looming at the end of the boardwalk, it was not what I expected.

The “Big Tree” on Goose Island is a showpiece, its massive limbs carefully groomed, supported and reaching symmetrically to the sky. Although younger, the Brazoria oak appears to have lived a much harder life. A couple of its main branches have splintered and broken off and lie decaying nearby. Its trunk is hollowed out in places, and its crown resembles a broken umbrella. Unlike the “Big Tree”, which stands majestically alone, surrounded by a fence that keeps onlookers at bay, the Brazoria oak is encircled by small scrubby trees ready to take their place in the canopy once the aging oak falls.

But there’s something charming about this unpretentious state champion that is bent but unbowed. The tree probably sprouted before the American Revolution and has stood up to the punishing winds of many hurricanes, including the unnamed storm that laid waste to Galveston in 1900.

Its trunk is about as wide as a city bus; its crown three stories tall. When last measured in 2010 its trunk was 32 feet around, its crown spread 109 feet, and its upper branches soared 67 feet above the ground.

The title, though, goes not to the oldest, tallest or widest three, but the one with the highest “index” according to the formula: tree circumference (in inches) + total height (in feet) + ¼ the average crown spread (in feet). By that measure, the San Bernard Oak weighed in at a hefty 477.

The San Bernard Live Oak is not the only local champion. Here are some of the others from the 2013 Texas Big Tree Registry:

TREE COUNTY CIRCUMFERENCE* HEIGHT CROWN SPREAD INDEX MEASURED
Cedar elm Waller 122 78 52 213 2010
Winged elm Harris 120 59 89 201 2012
Common Hackberry Liberty 172 55 81 247 1967
Black Hickory** San Jacinto 108 107 56 229 2001
Pignut Hickory Liberty 126 97 57 237 2004
Jerusalem thorn Harris 63 34 45 108 2012
Chalk Maple Harris 14 17 25 37 2008
Durand Oak Liberty 121 80 83 222 2006
Dwarf palmetto** Brazoria 43 28 13 74 2003
Loblolly pine*** Harris 18 106 80 313 2010
Mexican Plum** Harris 68 18 37 94 2011
Japanese privet** Harris 42 60 28 109 2011
Southern red cedar Harris 61 75 26 143 1979
Chinese tallow** Harris 159 55 58 228 2010
Yaupon Harris 34 34 27 75 2013

*Circumference is in inches, the rest are in feet. **National champion ***Pending

And here are a few more highlights from among the Texas champion trees:

  • Tallest tree – Nutall Oak, Cass County, 140 feet tall
  • Thickest trunk – Bald cypress, Real County, 441 inches in circumference
  • Biggest spread – Water oak, Freestone County, 125 feet
  • Biggest tree of any species – Bald cypress, Real County, tree index of 564

About Scott Clark

I’m a digital journalist who’s worked as a photographer, reporter, producer and editor. My interest in the natural history of my surroundings reaches back to my early days beachcombing on the Jersey coast, rowing my boat on a quiet lake in Missouri and, more recently, discovering the mountains and backwoods of Montana, where I was born.

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