NORTH SMITHFIELD – With a 132-inch circumference and a height of 72 feet, a Sugar Maple on Providence Pike has been named a “champion,” of its kind by the Rhode Island Tree Council.
The champion tree sits on a private property at 491 Providence Pike owned by Jeanne and Ray Dion, and was nominated for the recognition by Richard Keene, president of the North Smithfield Heritage Association.
“When we stopped at Ray & Jeanne’s house during one of our recent Heritage Walking Tours, we talked about their sugar maple trees and the maple sap that they harvest from them,” noted Keene. “They looked like champions to us, so we nominated them to the tree council.”
The title means the tree – one of two in the Dions’ front yard – is among the biggest of its kind in the state, and came with a certificate to authenticate its special status.
For their part, the couple says they were surprised by the recognition.
“They came out and measured it,” Ray said of the council. “I didn’t expect it to be a champion.”
The Dions are members of the NSHA and spoke from their 286-year-old farmhouse to those on one of the organization’s walking tours last year, discussing how to gather sap from the maples, a hobby they say they picked up to show their grandchildren.
“We were showing them how to do stuff the old way,” explained Jeanne. “We don’t sell it or anything.”
It is not the first tree in town to be recognized in the Helen Walker Raleigh Champion Tree program, a statewide database managed and supported by the Rhode Island Foundation. With the motto “trees are cool,” the council aims to document significant trees across Rhode Island.
Two trees on a property at 399 Great Road, a white hickory and a northern catalpa, make the statewide list. And just last year, a Shagbark Hickory on a Comstock Road property owned by Anthony Chernasky was crowned a species champion. That tree was measured at 91-feet-tall and is estimated to be 150-200-years-old.
The tallest listed on an online database from 2019 is a 126-foot tuliptree in Warwick.
The Dion’s Sugar Maple – or Acer Saccharum as it’s known to arborists – has a crown spread of 62 feet, and has been deemed an important part of Rhode Island heritage. The champion and its smaller, “sister,” sugar maple were there when the couple purchased the property 18 years ago, and age of the trees is unclear.
“One of the most rewarding aspects of the program is the research data we have accumulated on big trees over the past decade,” notes a letter from the tree council that came with the recognition.
The organization shares that data with the USDA Forest Service and college scientists who use it to study climate change, develop new plant selections and learn what’s behind tree longevity, the letter explains.
Keene said that he learned of the Champion Tree program when the council donated two young trees to the NSHA, which have since been planted behind Heritage Hall on Green Street. The first summary of Rhode Island’s champion trees was published by the council in 2008, and the organization popularized the program with annual calendars illustrating the recognized champions and other noteworthy trees.
“We’re grateful that the Dion family has preserved those magnificent old trees that contribute to our town’s rural character,” said Keene. “We’re also thrilled that they and other local families continue the agricultural tradition of maple sap harvesting to make maple syrup. Perhaps this recognition will encourage more people in town to plant native trees on their property.”
“It’s pretty neat,” said Ray.
To learn more about the program, or nominate a champion tree visit https://ritree.org/champion-tree/.