Champion Trees of Sampson County

by A.J. Bullard DDS

State Champion Dogwood

Two Sampson County trees are the present N.C. State Champions of their respective species. This champion status is determined by the Big Tree Program at both the national and individual state levels. Big Tree Program has been active for many years. The NC Program is sponsored by the NC Forest Service which helps in verifying and measuring candidate trees. Trees must meet certain criteria such as tree height, branch spread, and circumference at breast height. To simplify, tree diameter is mentioned in feet and inches and from these measurements a total number of points is determined.

The first tree is a dogwood which I nominated in 1994. This tree still stands in the Matthis Cemetery, 2.2 miles east of business 701 and on Highway 24 east of Clinton. A metal plaque with detailed history is located nearby. This tree boasts a limb spread averaging 48 feet, height of 31 feet, and a trunk diameter of 3 feet 1 inch. When I nominated it, it was declared National Champion but measuring criteria have changed so it is the state champion today. Currently its 158 points are only 16 less than the tree which is the national champion.

This tree is hollow but otherwise healthy and is adorned by full bloom each April. People from as far away as Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida have come to behold this tree. Another question which arises as to how old this behemoth dogwood is! The answer is, no one knows for sure, but we can narrow it down a bit. This tree was an adult in 1864 when this cemetery was established and was the cynosure of said cemetery with the earliest grave stones surrounding it. In 1994, a former Miss Matthis, 99 years old then, and raised near the cemetery told me it looked almost as large 95 years ago as it looked in 1994. Regardless of its exact age, it far eclipses any dogwoods known around here.

Attempts at coring this tree to determine age weren’t possible because most of the trunk and larger limbs were hollow. We found one 11 inch solid secondary branch – it was 99 years old. Long live the queen!

Attempts at coring this tree to determine age weren’t possible because most of the trunk and larger limbs were hollow. We found one 11 inch solid secondary branch – it was 99 years old. Long live the queen!

The second champion tree is a willow oak in southern Roseboro. My deceased cousin, Bob Melvin, and I nominated it in around 2007 and it has a commemorative plaque beside it. It is some 85 feet tall with a diameter of 8 feet 2 inches. The Forest Service estimates it to be between 300 and 400 years old. It is in fair health overall.

There are some other very large species in the county, but none I know of qualifies as a State Champ. Notable among these “also rans” is a Swamp Chestnut Oak at the historic home of Thomas Bullard, my great grandfather, on Carrie Bridge Road near Hayne. It is some 85 feet tall and 6 feet 1 inch trunk diameter. It goes back to the mid 1850’s when the house was built and is in good shape. Another common name for this species is Basket Oak since strips for all kinds of baskets were derived from its inner bark. These were transplanted from lowgrounds to be used as shade trees for homes and streets and would live for centuries.

State Champion Willow Oak

Sampson County also sports a specimen of our rarest native tree east of the Mississippi. Perhaps this Florida Torreya in Clinton and others will be the subject of future articles!