Big Trees and the Humans Who Find Them

Hunting down and measuring out mammoth trees has become a surprise-hit hobby in New York and around the globe.

By Robert Lawrence

Near Coeymans, N.Y., there is a floodplain that flanks the Hudson and extends out to a well-kept property that a couple has owned for many years. Nearby is a dock. That’s where Fred Breglia found himself on a spring morning in 2022, getting ready to go fishing for striped bass. His mind switched gears when he noticed an unusually large tree canopy on that property. He was compelled to get a closer look.

A landmark Hudson Valley tree, the Bedford Oak. (Photo: Marty Aligata / Wikimedia Commons)

Breglia happens to be a certified arborist and executive director of the Landis Arboretum near Albany. But he is perhaps more famous for leading a growing community devoted to finding, documenting, and preserving abnormally large trees. “Big tree hunting” has become a competitive global hobby, and in the social-media age, a surprisingly viral one.

Still healthy and growing, the enormous Eastern cottonwood Breglia spotted that day in Coeymans is well cared-for by the property owners along with their vegetable and pollinator gardens. “It is most likely the largest documented male cottonwood in New York,” he says enthusiastically, noting that a few females of the species are even larger. “I also believe that the Coeymans tree will be New York State’s biggest tree in the future, probably in another 60 years or so.”

For now, the title of biggest tree in the state goes to an Eastern cottonwood that Breglia documented later in 2022, in Schaghticoke. It has a trunk diameter of more than 10 feet, and possibly enough rings within to be as old as the United States.

But Breglia is convinced that there are bigger trees out there waiting to be found. “I plan to spend a chunk of time in 2023 in hopes to prove this,” he says.

Fred Breglia with a favorite New York tree specimen. (Photo: Courtesy Fred Breglia)

To be clear, the biggest trees are defined not just by the size of their trunk, but also by height, and the size of their canopy. A tree that has the largest score from the combination of these three metrics compared to others of the same species is considered by big tree hunters like Breglia to be a “champion” tree.

On a national level, champion trees are catalogued by the nonprofit American Forests.

But here in New York, the Department of Environmental Conservation maintains a Big Tree Register of the largest 170 or so trees in the state by species. Erin Brady oversees that register as the Big Tree Coordinator and Environmental Program Specialist with the DEC. It takes a lot of work.

“We just went through a major overhaul of the list because there were a significant number of trees that had to be remeasured, or they’d age out,” Brady says about the updated 2023 listing. “Every tree is verified when they are nominated, and champions need to be remeasured every 10 years to remain on the list.”

Champion trees by county. (Illustration: Robert Lawrence)

Although the largest tree on that list now has Breglia’s name next to it, lately he has been devoting less time to tree hunting and focusing more on conservation and community. Back in 2007, he helped draft the Bruce S. Kershner Old-Growth Forest Preservation and Protection Act, which became a state law that protects New York’s 350,000-plus acres of old-growth forests — one of the few such laws in the country.

More recently, he has been organizing like-minded people through social media. His Big Trees of New York Facebook group includes more than 2,800 members.

“New York has a lot of big tree hunters,” he says, noting that this isn’t surprising because the state also has the second largest amount of old-growth forest in the U.S.

On an international level, Breglia also leads the Big Tree Seekers Facebook group, which caught the attention of Facebook’s marketing department and ended up being featured on giant ads over Times Square in 2019. Since then, that Facebook group has exploded to include more than 200,000 members.

Facebook ran an ad campaign in 2019 that featured tree hunters in Times Square. (Photo: Courtesy Fred Breglia)

This year, Breglia is launching the Landis Arboretum 2023 Big Tree Search, a statewide effort that he hopes will attract new people to the hobby.  “We are looking for the next biggest single-stem tree in New York State overall, regardless of species, and will be offering a cash reward to the person who can find it,” he says. “We will also be looking for new New York state species champions.” These are the largest of each tree species in New York State, according to the recently updated state DEC Big Tree Register.

With close to 200 eligible tree species in the state of various sizes, it is worth noting that a champion tree is not necessarily a “big” tree. “A big sumac could be two feet in diameter,” Breglia says. “That’s really big for a sumac.”

Also, some species are waiting for someone to nominate a champion on their behalf. “We don’t currently have a hazel alder champion,” Brady pointed out. “But someone could nominate one in their backyard, and it would be an instant champion simply because no others have been nominated.”

Those in the Hudson Valley who want to join the search for a champion tree should be respectful and not trespass while hunting for trees, and stay mindful of their own safety when venturing off trail or traversing unfamiliar areas. But they should also be encouraged to know that the Hudson River and its expansive floodplains are an ideal environment for finding big cottonwoods, willows, sycamores, and other water-loving trees that have never been documented. “It’s the biggest river around,” Breglia explains. “Basically, the bigger the river, the bigger the floodplain, the deeper the soil, the bigger the potential for a tree to get big.”

The Dover Oak, one of the Hudson Valley’s landmark trees, and the oldest oak tree along the Appalachian Trail. (Photo: @myattthruhike)

And that kind of potential, along with a bit of competitive spirit, keeps the search alive. “The allure of big tree hunting,” Breglia says, “is finding something that’s really hard to find, but possible. That’s what sort of keeps me coming back to it year after year — it’s that potential.”

Robert Lawrence lives in Montgomery, N.Y., where he works as a science writer and enjoys visiting the many parks of the Hudson Valley with his wife and little boy. He is originally from drier climates and holds a PhD in biochemistry from Arizona State University.