Brian Riley and the national champion eastern cottonwood. Courtesy of Brian Riley.

You would think that someone who works as a private lands service forester and state forest lands botanist for the state of Ohio would get enough of trees and plants during the day, but for Brian Riley, that’s just the start. When he’s not making a living in the woods, he’s pursuing forestry, botany, horticulture, gardening and big tree hunting.

Despite his love of the forest, his hunts for big trees and his position as state coordinator of the Ohio Big Tree Program happened by chance thanks to a well-placed publication. In June 2000, Brian came across a copy of the 1989 edition of Ohio’s Big Trees at the Columbus Metropolitan Library. Already hooked, his search for big trees began shortly after.

Ohio lays claim to eight current national champions — and Brian has nominated three of them: the hortulan plum, Oriental arborvitae, and downy hawthorn. With such great credits to his big tree resume, Brian’s favorite champion is still his very first find: the Ohio state champion European alder. Brian’s grandfather actually planted the tree back in the 1950s, when he worked for the USDA Forest Service. Today, the tree thrives in his grandfather’s backyard, and despite the whopping 125 Ohio state champions that Brian has found, he is proudest of this “family tree.”

Like many others, Brian says that the best part of big tree hunting is that it never ends; the search always goes on. You never know what the next discovery will be or where the next lead will take you. “When you are hunting big trees, you have to be prepared for anything to come your way.”

Visit the Ohio Big Tree Program website, and check out the National Register of Big Trees.