The national champion loblolly pine.
Another distinguishing feature of the Congaree is that many of its trees literally stand above all else. According to the Eastern Native Tree Society, based on direct tape drop or laser measurements by Will Blozan and Jess and Doug Riddle, Congaree boasts the tallest known specimens of 15 species! Emerging above the canopy layer is a loblolly pine that looks down on everything from 167 feet, just 18 feet shy of the Boogerman white pine in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the tallest known tree in the East. Among the other first-place record holders for loftiness in the canopy are a sweetgum (157 feet), a cherrybark oak (154), an American elm (135), a swamp chestnut oak (133), an overcup oak (131), a common persimmon (127), and a laurel oak (125). No wonder Congaree is known as the “Redwoods of the East”!
And, like the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats, the environmental conditions that have created such airy crowns have also nourished exaggerated stature in the sub-canopy and understory trees. Nowhere else are you likely to find a taller swamp cottonwood (115 feet), winged elm (104), American holly (91), Carolina ash (82), American hornbeam (68), pawpaw (53), or possumhaw (44). Congaree also has the second-tallest common baldcypress (141 feet), sugarberry (108), and water-elm (65).
With so many records in the height category, you might suspect that Congaree harbors many champions, and you would be right. American Forests’ big-tree point formula (circumference in inches + height in feet + one-fourth of the crown spread in feet) favors open-area trees that express their growth mainly in the girth of a relatively short trunk. Even so, Congaree is currently home to six national- and 23 state-champion trees. For every three square miles, there are two champion trees. The park is so rich in big trees that when a champion falls, there is usually a nearby contender to take its place.
The area was first surveyed for champion trees in 1977 by Dr. Chuck Gaddy, who located 30. In the following 16 years many of these champs were blown down or severely damaged by storms. Then, in 1993, Dr. Robert Jones surveyed the park and found 27 new champions. The current national champions of Congaree, all new since Jones’s initial survey, include possumhaw, water hickory, loblolly pine, laurel oak, swamp tupelo, and sweetgum.
After four miles of trail and a mile of bushwhacking past the two swamps and through the switch cane, I waded a muddy, boot-sucking stream. The Congaree is a wetland forest, and indeed it seems like water is everywhere. There are very few places in the park where you can travel more than a half-mile in one direction without having to cross a pond, lake, creek, seasonal channel (locally called a gut), slough, wet flat, or muck swamp. It is an aquatic and terrestrial maze that constantly changes. About 10 times a year there really is water everywhere as the Congaree River rises to flood the entire area.
Finally, drenched in sweat and bugged by bugs, I found the champion swamp tupelo growing on the bank of a small muddy creek deep in the heart of Congaree. Swamp tupelos growing in water typically have a swollen base that tapers rapidly within 10 feet to a trunk that may be several times smaller in diameter. The 337-point champion grows in a location only temporarily flooded, so its five-foot-thick trunk tapers only gradually, soaring 80 feet to the first major limb. Massive though it is, one gets the impression, walking through these woods, that perseverance and a good supply of bug spray are all you’d need to find a bigger one.
The next day I located the biggest loblolly pine, growing conveniently only a few dozen yards off a trail. For someone accustomed to associating pines with the mostly dry climates of the West or generally upland habitats in the East, it was surprising to find the champion loblolly with flood debris around its base, growing less than 20 feet from baldcypress knees. The champion is the very same aforementioned 167-foot-tall, tallest loblolly pine. It looks down on one of the highest temperate forest canopies in the world, and towers more than 100 feet above the understory crowns of American holly and pawpaw.