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Marine on St. Croix willow is 26 feet around and the biggest in Minnesota

This black willow tree in Marine on St. Croix was determined in June 2017 to be the largest tree of its kind in Minnesota. (Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)

MARINE ON ST. CROIX, Minn. — A black willow tree in Marine on St. Croix is the largest of its kind in Minnesota — and is on track to be crowned national champion next year.

Located on private property about 20 miles northwest of the Twin Cities in the town of about 700, the tree's massive circumference of 26 feet, 3 inches (315 inches) has earned it a spot on the state's Big Tree Registry, the official record maintained by the forestry division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Jennifer Teegarden, a DNR forestry outreach specialist who maintains the registry, said the Marine on St. Croix willow is expected to become the national champion in 2018 "as long as it doesn't die, fall over or a bigger tree is found in another state."

The current national black-willow champion, located in Coos, N.H., has a much smaller circumference — 212 inches. It was crowned national champion in June 2016, she said.

Teegarden said she could not determine the tree's age because of problems with rot and bark sloughing off. "Black willows in Minnesota rarely grow older than 85 years," she said. "They're a fast-growing, short-lived tree. It's a tree that normally grows along river banks or lakes. It's a water-loving tree, so it's unusual to find it in a residential neighborhood."

Local writer Greg Seitz broke the news of the giant tree on his blog — St. Croix 360 — last week.

The DNR tracks 52 native species for its big-tree registry. Trees are judged by circumference, height, and spread of the crown or top. Champions are often nominated by the public and require an official measurement by a DNR forester.

Species include well-known trees such as the white pine and sugar maple, but also some lesser-known species such as the Kentucky coffeetree and shagbark hickory.

The champion trees range in size from a pin cherry on private land near Alexandria, with a circumference of only 26 inches, to the behemoth eastern cottonwood champ on state-owned land near Watson, with a 394-inch circumference. At almost 33 feet around, the cottonwood champ is "considered the largest living tree in Minnesota that we know of," Teegarden said.

A tamarack tree on private land in Brainerd also is in the running for national honors, Teegarden said. The current national champion, located in Carroll, N.H., has a circumference of 118 inches; Minnesota's champion is 150 inches.

There are several species in the state that don't currently have a champion, Teegarden said. If you have a large northern mountain ash, mountain maple or chinkapin oak in your yard, Teegarden wants to hear from you.

Big trees "kind of come and go," she said. "One thing about big trees is that they are old. They often have to get cut down because they are a hazard, or they die."

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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