Middleton Oak, SC and Sag Branch Tulip, GSMNP Project

February 21-24, 2004


The Middleton Oak and Sag Branch Tuliptree Project

Summary by Edward Forrest Frank, July 19, 2009, revisions September 15, 2010

The modeling and comparison of the Middleton Oak, a large live oak at Middleton Place, Charleston, SC and the Sage Branch Tuliptree in Great Smoky National Park, NC was the first major project of its kind undertaken by the Eastern Native Tree Society (ENTS). The Middleton Oak was climbed and mapped on February 21, 2004, and the Sag Branch Tuliptree was climbed and mapped on February 24, 2004. The two major goals of the project were create a three-dimensional model of each tree and compare the volumes of wood in each tree’s trunk and branches. The two trees represented the extremes of form for hardwood trees in the eastern United States. The Middleton Oak is a tree with a trunk that is fat, at 10.44 foot diameter, and relatively short, at 67 feet. However it has a massive canopy , with several branches many feet in diameter, extending outward to form a broad low crown. The Sag Brach Tuliptree in contrast has a massive single trunk, 7.08 feet in diameter at the base, 167 feet tall with a slow taper. It also has a broad crown, but its crown is made of much smaller branches. 

Middleton Oak – photo by Will Blozan 2004

Beginnings of the Project

In late fall 2003 there was an ongoing discussion thread on the longevity, classification, and sizes of various live oaks around the southern United States. http://www.nativetreesociety.org/species/sp_threads/live_oak1.htm  Bob Leverett (Co-founder of ENTS, commented, “It is evident that there are some incredible live oaks around. Out of curiosity, do you have any idea what the cubic foot volume is of a tree like that?  Will Blozan and I have typically placed the volumes of the largest tuliptrees in the Smokies at 3,000 to 3,500 cubic feet based on some not too shabby modeling. But those were straight-boled trees. Is there any reason to believe that the sum of the trunk and limb volume of a forest-grown tree exceeds or lags that of a large spreading open grown tree? Any thoughts on that? Anyone else have thoughts about that?” (Oct. 14, 2003) Will Blozan responded, “I would guess that a huge live oak would scale over 2000ft3, maybe more like 2200'-2400'. I have no reason to say this but I thought I'd start there! I bet they weight more than a big tuliptree!” (Oct. 14, 2003) Randy Cyr proposed, “Will [Blozan], After many vertical climbs, are you up for a "horizontal" climb. I may be able to get you into some of these live oaks...so you can measure them and maybe better estimate board feet (it's been too many decades since I graded logs for a lumber co.). Maybe involve the media (these plantations love publicity). Some of these oaks may have 10 to 30 branches that start at 3 to 8 feet in diameter, and may go 40 to 80 feet, before dropping under a foot (not to mention an ugly, twisted, gnarled trunk, 8 to 12 feet in diameter). Please don't let me "pigeon-hole" you, but it would be interesting if such a tree could be measured.” (Oct. 14, 2003) Will Blozan accepted the challenge, “Oh, what the heck, OK, I'll do it... HELL YEAH!!!” (Oct. 15, 2003)

From this point the discussion focus changed to the relative volumes of live oak and other tree species. http://www.nativetreesociety.org/species/sp_threads/tree_volume.htm Randy Cyr championed the live oak, “I follow every thread. Though, initially, I was inclined to accept Will's (to Bob’s question) estimate of live oak volume (1,500 to 2000?).  But, in light of much discussion since, I wonder about this. Live oak is a climber's dream. Rather than being upright, the scaffolds are mostly parallel with the ground-this makes for easy limb-walking. The angles of the branches and the thickness of the crown, make more some most interesting sculpting. No other tree can be sculpted around structures with such elegance, and yet prove so storm-worthy. But getting back to my point. Probably no other tree gets as dense as live oak. The oak that grow along the South's coast may be thick enough to "snowshoe" across the canopy (though, I wouldn't try it!). Underneath those leathery, evergreen leaves, tough enough to withstand centuries of sandblasting, are numerous branches, limbs and twigs, which, for volume, are very large and strong (maybe to hold up to the East's many hurricanes). But, my point is this. If you have a 10 to 20 foot tall trunk, that's 10 to 12 feet in diameter (which often gets larger the higher you measure), leading off with many scaffolds (some 6 feet in diameter), to a crown that can exceed 170 feet, I just wonder, if one were to meticulously measure the volume of most every scaffold, branch and limb (excluding twigs), if there would not be as much, if not more volume, than say a 10 to 12 foot diameter cylinder, close to 190 feet tall! For those that have climbed live oaks much, they can tell you just how dense these crowns can become…A relatively small trunk of live oak (none stronger), can support an amazing large crown. I think we've focused so much on measuring huge conifer boles, that large, spreading crowns may have been slighted, as it relates to points (AF) and measuring volume. I have never measured volume. I am just a previous live oak climber, making an uninformed observation. Am I terribly off base in this? If there is good justification for Will and I to maybe climb a large live oak (like the Middleton) and measure the complete volume? To further make my point. Please find attached a 34kb JPEG image of the Saint John the Divine Cathedral Oak in Lafayette, LA. Though an older, declining tree, it has a relatively small trunk (8 or 9 feet in diameter?) compared to several sizable scaffolds that extend a considerable distance from the tree. One, you have to be amazed that such a small amount of trunk wood can support such a huge crown, that has been buffeted by many hurricanes. Two, you have wonder, if all those leads and branches were pulled back into one single cylinder, if it would not be a greater volume.” (Dec. 06, 2003) 

Will Blozan responded, “Hopefully BVP will chime in on this one, too... As massive as the limbs are, it takes an astonishing amount of limbs to equal even a small section of fat trunk. Also, many limbs on hardwoods are not cylindrical, and though may be 8' in "diameter" may only have 50-60% of the volume of an 8' cylinder per given length. A limb of such dimensions would soon diverge and split into smaller and smaller sections that are rather insignificant to the entire volume (as in a small percentage). I would agree that live oaks have massive amounts of limbs that may in fact out-weight the short trunk- no small feat in the arboreal world. We will have to climb and find out!” (Dec. 06, 2003) 

Dr. Robert Van Pelt indeed chimed in, “I am including a table from a chapter I wrote for a book called Forest Canopies that will be coming out in Spring. Our canopy sampling protocol, which is the subject of the chapter, includes methods for structurally mapping ANY tree - even banyans. The three-dimensional data sets include information on volume (of everything - including branches and twigs) and also surface area. As can be seen from the table, tall forest grown trees such as Doug firs or Eucalypts have about 8-10 percent of their volume in branches. The Tane Mahuta (the southern hemisphere's largest tree), a tree with a vast crown, has about 38 percent of the total volume in branches. A giant tulip such as the Mill Creek Monster might have 12-15 percent branch volume. Some of the live oaks are nearing 100 percent. Regardless of the percentage, the branches are difficult to measure and nearly impossible to model. If this is attempted on any of these trees, I will be all over the opportunity - I will bring my harness, equipment and can design a sampling protocol.” (Dec. 07, 2003)  

By December 8, 2003 Randy Cyr had initiated arrangements to map the Middleton Oak, “I just got off the phone with Middleton Place's PR person (David) and TCI Magazine's editor (Mark). They both expressed interest. We will need to fill in the blanks for a commitment. Not only are we seeking permission to climb & measure their oak, but free admittance and lodging for 2 days. You gentlemen must have an idea by now of what we propose to accomplish. In addition to what we've already discussed, I propose we look for a 1 day, 2 night window in mid-January. We're looking for a dry, windless day of at least 60 degree F. We would check-in (hopefully at the Plantation) the night before, spend the entire day measuring (and coring, if they allow), spend the night, and leave the next day. The model would be worked out in the next few months. Besides involving TCI, Middleton may bring in some local media, and we also should consider doing a paper (the Journal of Arboriculture may want to publish it). What I, David and Mark need from you is more details and concerns addressed. …”  

Bob Leverett summarized the feelings of the group as the project began to come together, “These are exciting times for ENTS. The importance of the Middleton Oak project to us isn't just in the mapping of this one great tree, but in the imagination that both tree and project stimulates. Today's eastern trees and forests have been significantly diminished in the minds of amateur and professional alike by the accounts of great trees of yesteryear and the common sight of degraded forests. However, for those of us who are taking the time to look, we are finding many fabulous eastern trees alive today that are worth measuring, studying, and mapping. We have individual trees and forest remnants waiting to be discovered and documented for our present day satisfaction and for posterity.  It is not beating a dead horse to emphasize that the enjoyment or study of big trees does not fall within the province of any single profession or individual background. ENTS, as an organization, and individual members have a legitimate role in the compilation of tree lists, the development of volume models, and extending the eye of science. All this is our focus and has been all along, but the Middleton Oak adds a touch of real class. Spanish moss and gargantuan limbs extended for 70 feet and more have power to energize a collective imagination and keep us out of the rut we sometimes get in fretting over big tree rating systems.  How big is the Middleton Oak? I have no idea, but it is big enough to warrant the attention we plan to give it, and after the Middleton Oak, then maybe the Mill Creek Monster or another giant Smoky Mountain tuliptree. The data coming from big tree modeling projects will find its way onto the radar screens of more and more foresters, arborists, and ecologists.  It will happen. Of course, it won't be a first. The big tree of the Pacific Northwest can never be looked upon again as just convenient blocks of potential lumber. They are so much more. Maybe the eastern trees aren't in the league of their Pacific cousins, but it is time to take a much closer look at the eastern giants, not only for their volumes but for the habitat they provide for above the forest floor and the development of forest processes that are not evident from the forest floor.  The Middleton Oak and other live oak giants of the Southeast may help us to recapture the mystery of great trees. The shapes of these oaks jar us out of the well-behaved timber model- the kiss of death to imagination. And to think that they've been there all along, they just weren't on our radar scope. (Dec. 10, 2003)

Live Oak 

According to the Silvics of North America, USDA Agricultural Handbook, Vol. 2, Hardwoods (1990): Live oak (Quercus virginiana), also called Virginia live oak, is evergreen with a variety of forms, shrubby or dwarfed to large and spreading, depending upon the site. Usually live oak grows on sandy soils of low coastal areas, but it also grows in dry sandy Woods or moist rich woods. The wood is very heavy and strong but is little used at present. Birds and animals eat the acorns. Live oak is fast-growing and easily transplanted when young so is used widely as an ornamental. Variations in leaf sizes and acorn cup shapes distinguish two varieties from the typical, Texas live oak (Q. uirginiana var. fusiformis (Small) Sarg.) and sand live oak (Q. virginiana var. geminata (Small) Sarg.). 

Live oak is found in the lower Coastal Plain of the Southeastern United States from southeastern Virginia south to Georgia and Florida including the Florida Keys; west to southern and central Texas with scattered populations in southwestern Oklahoma and the mountains of northeastern Mexico. 

The native range of live oak – USDA Silvics Manual

Live oak never attains great height, but the crown may have a span of 46 in (150 ft) or more. Open-grown specimens may have trunks 200 cm (79 in) in d.b.h. and average 15 in (50 ft) in height. Since the species is of little commercial importance except as an ornamental, growth and yield information has never been developed.”

Will Fell noted, “There are live oaks in the Altamaha River Bottoms that have 50 - 60 foot clear trunks. None that I saw near record size, but it did show that when grown with competition they can grow upright like other oaks. Usually live oak occurs in maritime habitats with little vertical competition and plenty of room to spread. (Oct. 11, 2003)

The Live Oak Society, http://www.louisianagardenclubs.org/pages/oak.htm  maintains a registry of live oaks nominated from across the southern United States. As of June 2007, the registry lists 5630 oaks nominated from 1934 until the present. To become a member, a live oak must have a girth (waistline) of eight feet or greater, with those over 16 feet being classified as centenarians.  The first page of the website lists, “the "Seven Sisters Oak", formerly known as "Doby's Seven Sisters". The owner who first named the tree was Carole Hendry Doby, who was one of seven sisters. "Seven Sisters Oak" is located in the Lewisburg area of Mandeville, Louisiana on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Estimated by foresters to be 1200 years old, this tree has a girth of over 38 feet.  The first vice-president is "Middleton Oak" in Charleston, South Carolina, with a girth of 31 feet. The second vice-president is the "St. John Cathedral Oak" in Lafayette, Louisiana, measuring 27 feet. The "Lagarde Oak" in Luling, Louisiana, is third vice-president and measures 29 feet.  "Martha Washington Live Oak" in Audubon Park in New Orleans, Louisiana, is fourth vice-president and measures 28 feet in girth. The largest registered stand of 249 live oaks is in City Park in New Orleans. The Registry now lists the Lagarde as 30' cbh, as well as 10 others as 30ft cbh or more:

  • Randall (LA) 35' cbh
  • Mace-Dominica (LA) 30' cbh
  • World's Largest Christmas Tree (NC) 35' cbh (highly unlikely)
  • Lucy Coleman Carnegie (GA) 30' cbh
  • Lovers (GA) 33' cbh
  • Capt Young (GA) 30' cbh
  • Cambrian Center (CA) 34' cbh
  • The Marvin (LA) 34' cbh
  • Marvin McGraw Memorial (LA) 31' cbh
  • Ole Oakie (LA) 32' cbh
  • Louque's Shady (LA) 33' cbh

Randy Cyr commented: “You might find absent from this list the oaks Will [Fell] has mentioned, as well as Charleston area live oaks that I have photographed that may well have larger girths then the 31' cbh Middleton Oak. Some of these oaks have not been remeasured in decades. Dozens that were listed 27 to 29 ft cbh, if still alive, may well have grown to 30ft cbh or more. Also, this is a LA Garden Club, listing LA trees by over 90%, with but one elderly registrar. There may well be dozens 30ft cbh live oaks outside of LA that have not been registered.” (Oct. 17, 2003).

Recent work by Larry Tucei, as part of the ENTS Live Oak Project 
http://www.nativetreesociety.org/projects/liveoak_project/index_liveoak.htm  has documented several more large girth oaks. Out of twenty-two oaks measured at this time 6 are greater than 28 feet in circumference. These results confirm there are many large live oaks outside of Louisiana, and within that have not been documented in the Live Oak Registry.

  August 01, 2007   CBH Max Spread Height Date Measurer
1 The E.O. Hunt Oak South Ms. Regional Center, Long Beach, Ms. 37' 170' 45' Mar 02 07 Tucei
2 The Audubon Park Oak Exposition Blvd.,Audubon Park, N.O., La. 35' 2" 165' 60' May 21 07 Tucei
3 The Biloxi Oak 956 Hwy 90 Biloxi, Ms. 35' 144' 57' Jan 01 07 Tucei
4 The Middleton Oak Charleston S.C. 32' 8" 118' 67' Feb 21 04 Blozan et. al.
5 Josephine A Stewart Oak Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie, La. 31' 2" 150' 71 July 30 07 Tucei
6 The Dedeaux Oak 5607 Vidilia Rd., Delisle, Ms. 30' 1" 148' 69' June 18 07 Tucei
7 The Andrew Jackson Oak D'Olive Plantation, Old Hwy 98 Daphne, Ala. 29' 6" 148' 81' Sept 30 06 Tucei
8 Valcour Aime Oak Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie, La. 29' 4" 132' 74' July 30 07 Tucei
9 Zeb Mayhew Jr. Oak Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie, La. 29' 2" 130.5' 75' July 30 07 Tucei
10 Andrew Stewart Oak Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie, La. 29' 145.5' 71' July 30 07 Tucei
11 The Long Beach Oak 5025 Beatline Rd., Long Beach Ms. 28' 8" 135' 48' April 02 07 Tucei
12 The Gulfport Oak 17 th St. and 30 th Ave.,Gulfport, Ms. 28' 6" 130' 48' Dec 15 06 Tucei
13 The Schmitt Oak 4442 Menge Ave., Pass Christian, Ms. 28' 2" 129' 69' June 18 07 Tucei
14 Wesley Methodist Oak 4701 School Ave., Pea Ridge, Fla. 28' 150' 66' July 16 07 Tucei

How old can live oaks grow to be? There is no definitive answer, as none of the largest and presumably oldest examples have been cored, or if cored have a hollow center. There are published projections that the Angel Oak near Charleston, SC may be anywhere from 1400 to 1600 years old. This may be an exaggerated guess more for tourism than science. There are examples of historically documented live oaks that can help provide a clue. Randy Cyr reported that although a horrific storm took out most of Savannah's oaks in 1893, some did survive. Some of these survivors are nearing 3 centuries of age, with a remarkable amount of physical documentation, from land surveys to statements made by John Muir. A fair size oak at Camp Lejeune, NC, was made mention of in a 1604 document and may represent the oldest historically documented example. 

Randy Cyr wrote: “The live oaks of famed Oak Alley Plantation (again, I have great photos of all these trees), some about 5 to 6 feet dbh, are historically documented almost 400 years.”  (Oct. 06, 2003) Will Fell wrote: “In Savannah, there are abundant records on the oaks growing on the squares and streets. In 1894 (or thereabouts) they planted live oaks in Washington Park and a number of the streets and squares. Now 110 years later these trees are quite sizable, 3 to 4 foot in diameter. Also some of the older colonial era roads on the coast are lined with massive live oaks, approaching record size. One could reasonably make the assumption that these are no older than the roads, 200 - 270 years. They line the roads in straight rows. It would be a stretch (to me anyhow) to assume that they were already in straight rows prior to the road being developed.” (Oct. 09, 2003)

Will Blozan wrote: “I have a photo of a large clump of four live oaks in Apopka, Fl. They were typically clothed in heavy Spanish moss and epiphytes and all stems were 2-2.5 feet in diameter. The spread of the clump was likely over 100'. In 1985, when I last saw these trees, I met the man who planted them, in a circle. They were less than 40 years old.” (Oct. 09, 2003).  Larry Tucie collected a sample of a 4.2 foot diameter live oak from the Mississippi coast that was blown down by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The tree-ring count of the tree found it to be approximately 134 years old at the time it fell.   http://www.nativetreesociety.org/fieldtrips/mississippi/liveoak_ages/live_oak_ages.htm  

A smaller live oak along the waterfront of Boone’s Plantation, Charleston has supposedly been documented to be at least 700 years old. I am not sure how it was documented. There certainly is a potential for some of the live oaks to approach 1000+ years in age, but none has been documented close to that age yet.  The wood from live oak is very strong and very dense. It has been used historically in shipbuilding. The US Navy retained rights to the live oak on several coastal islands on the Georgia Coast and the Gulf Coast of Florida near Pensacola for ship building. The large curved branches were used for the curved keel and the exterior was planked with with live oak as it was so strong. When they rebuilt the Constitution (Old Ironsides) back in the 50/60's they used Live Oak that we supplied from St. Simons Island. For information on the use of live oak in shipbuilding there is a book available on the subject: Wood, Virginia Steele 1981. Live Oaking: Southern Timber for Tall Ships. Northeastern University Press. 206 pp. 139 drawings and photographs. Size ca. 9" x 10". Extensive notes, bibliography and documentation. At a live oak conference in 2004
Dr. Jim Gardner, UNC, said that the live oaks of today were the puny ones of yesteryear. That before "liveoaking" took out the ancient forests, the oaks were much larger. One oak took two '3-man-teams' (one for each side) of experienced New England axemen 3 full days to fell. He went on to say that it took 36 acres of live oak to build but one ship. Shipbuilding with live oaks ended around 1850, but not until 200 years of clearing these magnificent forests. 

Middleton Oak

The Middleton Oak is a large live oak located on the grounds of Middleton Place, near Charleston, SC.  http://www.middletonplace.org/  The organizations’ website reads: "Middleton Place is a National Historic Landmark and a carefully preserved 18th-century plantation that has survived revolution, Civil War, and earthquake. It was the home of four important generations of Middletons, beginning with Henry Middleton, President of the First Continental Congress; Arthur, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; Henry, Governor of South Carolina and an American Minister to Russia; and Williams, a signer of the Ordinance of Secession." “The Middleton Oak is estimated to be more than 900 years old. With the Ashley River in the background, the unique and natural beauty of the ancient oak contrasts with the manicured gardens to offer a place of uncommon magnificence.”


According to the Silvics of North America, USDA Agricultural Handbook, Vol. 2, Hardwoods (1990): “Yellow-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), also called tuliptree, tulip-poplar, white-poplar, and whitewood, is one of the most attractive and tallest of eastern hardwoods. It is fast growing and may reach 300 years of age on deep, rich, well-drained soils of forest coves and lower mountain slopes. The wood has high commercial value because of its versatility and as a substitute for increasingly scarce softwoods in furniture and framing construction. Yellow-poplar is also valued as a honey tree, a source of wildlife food, and a shade tree for large areas.  Yellow-poplar grows throughout the Eastern United States from southern New England, west through southern Ontario and Michigan, south to Louisiana, then east to north-central Florida (22). It is most abundant and reaches its largest size in the valley of the Ohio River and on the mountain slopes of North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. The Appalachian Mountains and adjacent Piedmont running south from Pennsylvania to Georgia contained 75 percent of all yellow-poplar growing stock in 1974.


Because of its wide geographic distribution, yellow-poplar grows under a variety of climatic conditions. Low temperature extremes vary from severe winters in southern New England and upper New York with a mean January temperature of -7.2° C (19° F) to almost frost-free winters in central Florida with a mean January temperature of 16.1° C (61° F).


Yellow-poplar has a singly occurring, perfect flower 4 to 5 cm wide (1.5 to 2 in), with six petals varying in color from a light yellowish green at the margin to a deep orange band at the center. Yellow-poplars usually produce their first flowers at 15 to 20 years of age and may continue production for 200 years.

The mature yellow-poplar has a striking appearance. In forest stands its trunk is very straight, tall, and clear of lateral branches for a considerable height. It is among the tallest of all Eastern United States broadleaf trees. On the best sites, old-growth trees may be nearly 61 in (200 ft) high and 2.4 to 3.7 in (8 to 12 ft) d.b.h., but more often they are from 30.5 to 45.7 in (100 to 150 ft) at maturity, with a straight trunk 0.6 to 1.5 m (2 to 5 ft) in diameter. Age at natural death is usually about 200 to 250 years. However, some trees may live up to 300 years.”

Native range of the tuliptree – USDA Silvics Manual

Tuliptrees have been a species of particular interest to ENTS because of its great height. It is interesting t note that in actuality there are only a handful of tuliptrees over 150 feet tall and the majority of those are found in Great Smoky National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina. This tree is the tallest hardwood species found in the Eastern United States. The tallest specimen known at the present time is found in the Baxter Creek area of GSMNP, North Carolina at 177.4 feet tall, and 11 feet in circumference (cbh). It is also a tree that can also reach great diameter. One tree in Maryland, the Liberty Tree, cut down after hurricane damage in 1999, measured 21.5 feet in diameter and was found to have been 356 years old. Will Blozan has documented two trees in the Smokies that are 434 years and 432 years old respectively.  http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/~adk/oldlisteast/  Recent reports indicate that a tulip poplar has been cored in GSMNP to an age just over 500 years in which half the core was not completed because the tree was hollow. 

Lucas Conley next to a humongous Liriodendro tulipifera in the Great Smoky 
Mountains National Park (photo ©2006 Neil Pederson)

Sag Branch Tuliptree

The Sag Branch Tulip Tree was discovered on a trip to GSMNP on Sept. 11, 2002. Will Blozan reports: “Myself and Brian Newsome, an Asheville arborist, explored the west prong of Sag Branch in Cataloochee, GRSM... While measuring a dense grove of hemlock I looked to the west and spotted a huge tuliptree crown and massive trunk. I roughed the height to over 160' and figured the tree was in excess of 5 feet in diameter (I was standing by a fallen tuliptree over 16' in girth). After finishing with the hemlocks we decided to check the tree out. I stated it would be at least a 16 foot tree, then an 18' tree, then...Holy Moly! It was 22'5" in girth! I spent 1.5 hours measuring the tree, and came up with 164.4 feet in height and an average crown spread of 101.5 feet. This totals 459 AF big tree points and secures the title of the second largest tuliptree by point rating in the Smokies, second only to Tennessee's Greenbrier Giant standing at 466 points.Using the rangefinder blocks to estimate diameter aloft and calculate volume, Bob Leverett and I estimate the volume to be approaching 2900 ft3. This tree is very easy to get to and will be climbed and measured for volume. Perhaps there would be interest in a volume competition between TN and NC!  Diameters on the big tulip (unnamed) were as follows:  Lowest point above roots: 25.1"4.5 feet above midslope: 22.45'28" above dbh" 20.41'72.38' above midslope: 16.5'84.11' above midslope: 13.6'102.66' above midslope: 11.73'Limbs were massive, and crown spread in one direction was 113'. On Sept. 11, 2002 Will Blozan added: “As far as I know, the new tuliptree found on Sag Branch last weekend is the only tree of its size class (22'+) that has been discovered in many, many years. I think that all the big trees like the Greenbrier Giant, Mill Creek Monster, and those on Kalanu Prong, Albright Grove, and Collins Creek have been in Park  records for decades. Would you agree, Kris? I know of no records of this tree.”  Dr. Robert Van Pelt wrote: “Will, et al., Sweet find!  The fact that you will be climbing to document the tree's greatness is awesome! While in Victoria we climbed and mapped in three dimensions every branch on nine giant Eucalyptus regnans. These included trees over 300' tall and 3m in diameter. On these trees, 92% of the total wood volume was in the main trunk, 6% in large branches, and 2% in small branches and twigs (this last category was subsampled to obtain the total). The architecture of the Liriodendron will probably reduce the trunk volume to 80-85% of the total. Perhaps even less on trees with huge crowns. I can send you our branch mapping protocol if interested. Six feet thick at 40' up... of all eastern trees, only the Senator can also make such a claim!!!” (Sept. 11, 2002). Bob Leveret wrote: “If we assume 15% of the volume of limbs for the Sag Branch Colossus, which seems more reasonable, then the volume becomes 3,024 cubic feet. This is more in keeping with our calculations for the Greenbrier Giant and Mill Creek Monster. We can now claim 4 trees measured to over 3,000 cubic feet in the East: the three Smoky Mountain Tuliptrees and the Senator Tree in Florida. I assume that there are other bald cypresses with will surpass 3,000 cubic feet in the East. A most worthy ENTS project/mission would be to scout out and document the 3,000-cubic footers in the East.” 


Personnel from Middleton Oak Project. From left to right: 
Will Blozan (AA), Ed Coyle (AA), Brian Hinshaw (AA), Dr. 
Robert Van Pelt, Guy Meillier, Randy Cyr (standing) AA= 
Appalachian Arborists, Inc.

Project Personnel

Randy Cyr is an arborist from Greenville, South Carolina. He is a photographer with a large number of images on the ENTS website and on the Forest Images website among many others:  http://www.forestryimages.org/browse/autimages.cfm?aut=1835  
(He no longer owns the Greetreetech.com website).   The Tree Doc Mr. Randy Cyr Greenville SC 29606 Phone: 864-233-9422 

Will Blozan, President, Eastern Native Tree Society, President, Appalachian Arborists, Inc., ISA Certified Arborist SO-4032A Will is a former science technician with the GSMNP.  Will has a widely recognized reputation as a tree measurer. He has been featured in articles, on T.V., and on radio. he is a co-author of "Stalking The Forest Monarchs - A Guide To Measuring Champion Trees". He has climbed and measured the tallest or among the tallest trees in South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Will is director of the Tsuga Search Project::  http://www.nativetreesociety.org/tsuga/index_tsuga_search.htm  documenting the largest of the eastern hemlocks before they and their ecosystems are destroyed by the invasive hemlock wooly adelgid insect.

Dr. Robert Van Pelt at the University of Washington is one of the foremost scientists in the world studying and mapping forest canopies and determining tree volumes. In addition, Dr. Van Pelt is an author and the coordinator of the champion tree program for the state of Washington. Dr. Van Pelt has climbed, illustrated, photographed, and researched the forest giants of the Pacific Northwest for many years. He is the author of a recent book "Forest Giants of the Pacific Northwest." He says, "I am currently a research Affiliate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle where I am engaged in canopy research in Douglas Fir and Coast Redwood forests. I give occasional lectures and lead field trips for the University, and teach several field classes on Pacific Northwest old-growth forests and Northwest canopy ecology." In addition to being a world class scientist, Dr. Van Pelt is an accomplished artist, Some of his prints are available on his website at: http://www.forestgiants.com/  Some of his work in Australia is featured in the March 2003 National Geographic Magazine where he participated in the "canopy trek" through Australia’s tallest forest.

Brian Hinshaw 

Ed Coyle

Guy Muellier

Other People Providing Commentary/Support

Robert T. Leverett: Cofounder, Eastern Native Tree Society, Executive Director Friends of Mohawk Trail SF, Adjunct Professor Holyoke Community College. He and fellow ENTS co-founder Will Blozan pioneered tree measuring techniques that have allowed ground-based measurements to be accurate to within a foot of true height. Bob is the the primary architect of the Eastern Old Growth Conference series, and co-organizer of the HCC/ENTS Forest Summit Series. Bob recently published a book, co-authored with Bruce Kershner entitled "Sierra Club Guide to Ancient Forests of the Northeast." 

Willard Fell: supervisor for the Georgia Forestry Commission's 13-county District 10. photo July 16, 2006. Georgia American Forests Big Tree Coordinator.

Edward Frank, Geologist, caver, photographer, and webmaster for the Eastern Native Tree Society.

Larry Tucei: Live Oak Project Director, Mississippi


The methodology used to map the Middleton Oak and the Sag Branch Tuliptree was developed by Dr. Van Pelt. It is outlined in a chapter of the book: Forest Canopies, Second Edition by Margaret D. Lowman and H. Bruce Rinker, 2004, 544 pp. Chapter 3: Quantifying and Visualizing Canopy Structure in Tall Forests: Methods and a Case Study 49-72. Robert Van Pelt, Stephen C. Stillett, and Nalini M. Nadkami. 

Robert Van Pelt, author of "Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast" up in the Middleton Oak canopy – photo by Randy Cyr

A LTI Criterion 400 Laser Survey instrument was used to map the tree canopies. It is essentially a device that includes a laser-rangefinder, clinometer, and a compass. The LTI Criterion 400 uses an infrared semi-conductor laser diode for slope distance measurement. A vertical tilt-sensing encoder provides vertical inclination, while a fluxgate electronic compass measures magnetic azimuth, completing the data required to establish a point’s three-dimensional location in space. It was is used to map the position of every branch point in the canopy down to a certain size and also the positions of various reiterations, breaks, kinks, or any other eccentricities in the tree. This is usually done from a set position or a series of positions within the tree. Sketches and photographs are used to facilitate the process. Trees were climbed and the architecture mapped in accordance with criterion previously established. This involves mapping the location of the main stem and all reiterated trunks, in addition to all branches that originate from trunks. Each mapped trunk and branch was measured for basal diameter, length, azimuth, Climbers measure specific circumferences and detail other features within the tree. In addition a footprint map of the base of the tree is made to calculate the exact volume of the basal section of the tree. More details of these procedures can be found also in the book “Forest Giants of the Pacific Northwest.”  The data is processed in Excel to generate a volume calculation. Graphing functions can be used to create a 3-dimentional figure of the tree data. Dr. Van Pelt also uses an Excel macro to rotate the image so that it can be viewed from different angles.  In the cases of the Middleton Live Oak and Sag Branch Tulip each of the trees were mapped from a single set station from within the canopy of each tree.

IMG_0057a.JPG (92172 bytes)
                 Footprint Mapping of the Middleton Oak


On February 29 2004, Dr. Van Pelt provided a preliminary report of the results of the surveys of the Middleton Oak and Sag Branch Tuliptree.   http://www.nativetreesociety.org/fieldtrips/south_carolina/middleton_oak_project.htm  
He wrote: “ENTS, I am now back in the cool and cloudy (just like a good IPA) Pacific Northwest after spending a week with Will and his wonderful family. The arboreal highlights were many, but of course you will want to hear about the two climbs.  Two weeks ago I thought that The Senator held a supreme position in the East as far as volume was concerned. I figured that the largest of the Smokies Liriodendrons would be close to 3K and that the Middleton Oak would come in somewhere around 2K. Boy was I wrong! Although I have measured wood volume on over 2000 trees and branch volume on 136 trees, these were largely conifers and the ones that weren’t were relatively small or tall Eucalypts. My branch-trunk measuring protocol was developed on the world’s most complex trees, so I was confident it would adapt easily to these trees.

Will Blozan among the Spanish Moss - photo by Randy Cyr

Middleton Oak

Three cheers to Randy for organizing the Middleton Oak climb! Setting up the permissions and accommodations was fantastic - all we had to do was focus on the tree. Appalachian Arborists climbers Will Blozan, Ed Coyle, and Brian Hinshaw are excellent climbers who were easily able to respond to the trees’ architectural challenges in order to collect the needed data.  Overall, four people spent 8 hours in the tree measuring branch segments and branches. Besides the 3-D structural data set, a footprint map was made (2-D cross-sectional diagram) of the base, BH, and at 6.75 feet. A crown projection map was also made. Originally estimates on foliar and epiphytic biomass were going to be made, but this would have more than doubled the workload so it was scrapped. 

Sag-Branch Tulip

Will chose this tree because the massive crown – unsurpassed in his opinion. There may be other trees of this species that may rival the wood volume (larger trunk, smaller crown), but this was a great one to start with. This tree also required 8 hours in the tree, but for three climbers (Will, Ed, and myself). Added to that were 8 miles of trail, the last one after dark.

Ed Coyle at 400 feet up the Sag Branch Tulip – Feb 24, 2004 – photo by Will Blozan

Summary Stats

Cautionary note: The numbers presented below are PRELIMINARY.  The final 3-D model will modify these into a final form to include branch basal taper which the numbers below do not reflect. This aspect will take me a few weeks to complete. I wanted to post these initial numbers to start a discussion. The branch volume estimates account for all wood in the tree larger than 1.5 inches thick. Very small branches and twigs are not included.

  Middleton Oak Sag-Branch Tulip
Height 67.4  167.7
DBH 10.44 7.08
Crown Spread 118 101
Wood Volume  (cubic feet):  
Main Trunk 970 2,430
Branches 3,850 1,560
Total  4,820 3,990
Linear path length of wood over 1.5 inches (ft)
  2,730  2,360

WOW! Needless to say, I must complete revise my thoughts on Eastern trees. When first seeing these numbers, I was both excited and confused. If the greatest of Tulips can’t beat this Oak, what can? A Sycamore? A Cherrybark? Another Live oak? To be fair the estimates on the Senator are crude and do not include branches. We have our work cut out for us!!!”

Comments on Results

Randy Cyr commented: “Sweet! Your numbers have cleared our antiquated clocks! Though my unlearned, fanciful guess-timates once went as high as 4,000 ft3, even I would not have imagined your preliminary estimate closer to 5,000 ft3 (when you add the flares, will the Middleton exceed even this?). Upon hitting the ground, I do remember the climbers remarking that the Middleton was a really big tree. If you remember your initial stab of 3,000 ft3 was quickly reduced Saturday evening. Who would have known? With the relatively small crown, it is unlikely that the Senator, with a stem volume of 3,800 ft3, will overtake the Middleton. It may be as you say, in that, it will take another live oak to overcome the Middleton. Maybe not. The Wye Oak, the national champion white oak that recently failed, was weighted and estimated at about 5,000 ft3. Though all debris was weighted, to likely include smaller branches, leaves, concrete (from extensive cavity fills) and metal hardware (from about a mile of cabling). I guess we should be amazed, in the wake of centuries of hurricanes, that all of that crown volume has been suspended by such a relatively small, "stubby" trunk. Maybe the early builders of warships knew what they were doing by choosing live oak… I'm sorry I missed the Sag Branch climb (a truly great tree!).” (Feb. 29, 2004)

Bob Leverett wrote: “Bob: Congratulations. The 4,880 and 3,990 cubic feet volumes for the Middleton Oak and Sag Branch Tuliptree, change our notions of not only what are the most voluminous species in the East, but also the limits to the distribution of volume between trunk and limbs for various eastern species. I would imagine that Randy Cyr and Will Fell are pretty pleased with the results. A species that they have always known to be exceptional has been proven conclusively to be exceptional. man, do we have some great material for the update of "Stalking The Forest Monarchs", or don't we? We are indebted to all of you for completing this mission. I would imagine that it will open many doors for future missions of similar nature. I think I speak for all ENTS members when I say, thanks to you all.” (Mar. 01, 2004)

Willard Fell wrote: “I'm not surprised at the volumes relative to others, but am amazed that all the convoluted branches can be measured to arrive at these figures. The group had their hands full measuring and computing these compared to the relatively straight boles of the white pines. Still there is something special about those majestic yellow poplars and white pines tugging at the clouds regardless of overall volume.” (Mar. 01, 2004)

Randy Cyr again: “Will & ENTS: You might not have been surprised, but many of us were taken aback. We probably would have never bothered the Middleton Oak if previous estimates were not so low and BVP had not entered the fray. I suspect that most members are outside of live oak country and have fonder memories of trees in their own backyards. I was as much a proponent of us adapting the white pine in our logo as anyone. By as we all soon learned, some members were outside of the much broader range of the white pine. Every species has it's place. One member made a good pitch for black spruce. I couldn't disagree. How can we as tree people have just one favorite tree? As you get farther away from the beach, and into tighter natural stands, live oak can achieve a decent trunk and height. It may be only an arborist that can fully appreciate a live oak's unique ability to withstand both storms and construction. Even non-tree people can easily fall in love with moss-draped live oaks. I would recommend to anyone a visit to Savannah after dark. A drive down Bull Ave, with it's many parks, a walk along the waterfront or through Bonaventure Cemetery, can definitely get in one's blood. Just down the road, Wormslow Historic District has a mile-long live oak alley. I also liked Jekyl Island. I make it a point to attend all tree-related meetings in Charleston & Savannah.  Though we haven't considered it, I for one would like to know the Country's tallest live oak. My next pet peeve may be dating live oaks. BTW, Bob, I would not set the bar with the Middleton. There may well be larger trees out there. At least we have a standard.” (Mar. 01, 2004)

Recent Developments

There are a number of developments that have taken place since these two tree were measured that have some significance to interpreting the results. First where do these trees fit in comparison to other large trees of the east and of North America in General?

The following table was compiled from data from the book “Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast” and several field reports.

Senator Cypress: 

Cheoh Hemlock: 

Webster Springs Sycamore and Cornplanter Pine: 

Species Name Volume % Cylinder Occupation
Select Western Trees


Giant Sequoia General Sherman 55,040 34.9
Coast Redwood Del Norte Titan 36, 890 27,2
Western Red Cedar Quinnault Cedar 17,600 33.8
Douglas Fir Red Creek Tree 12,320 33.8
Sitka Spruce Queets Spruce 11, 920 27.5
Sugar Pine Whelan Tree  8,990 46.3
Western Hemlock Enchanted Valley  4,270 39.6

 Eastern Trees


Bald Cypress Senator Cypress  5,100 29.6
Live Oak Middleton Oak  4,820 91.0
Tuliptree Sag Branch Tulip  3,990 64.5
Sycamore Webster Springs  2,214 n/a (broken top)
Eastern Hemlock** Cheoh Hemlock  1,564 48.4
Eastern White Pine Cornplanter Pine  1,011 44.8

The table is not complete as it only lists a few of the largest species of western tree. The Sugar Pine and Western Hemlock are smaller than a number of other species, but were included as they are comparable to Eastern White Pine and Eastern Hemlock . The percent cylinder occupation listing is a measure of what percentage the measured volume of the tree represents compared to a cylinder equal to the circumference breast height (CBH) of the tree times the height of the tree. Trees with a fat base or a trunk that quickly tapers scores low on the list, trees that taper more slowly have higher values. Those trees with broken tops will have anomalously high values. 


The process of documenting the largest eastern trees has just begun. The comments made by Bob Leverett and Randy Cyr in 1994 still provide an excellent conclusion.  Bob Leverett wrote: “Will: The data that Bob collected shows a remarkable gradient for the proportion of wood tied up in limbs when going from conifers to hardwoods and then within hardwoods through the species that are forest-grown to those that are open grown. Those of us who have been conditioned to the importance of the trunk as the dominant source of the woody material of the tree, can now peer through the fog and see what was there all along - at least for some percentage of the big spreaders. Long live the limbs. Hey, how many more super secrets are you all hiding down there? Yes, I know, they've never been secrets. They've been clearly visible all along in their arboreal splendor… Where is the most voluminous hardwood in the East? Well, as of now, we must proclaim the Middleton Oak of South Carolina as the champ. Is it time for ENTS to go on a serious search for competitors.” (May 01, 2004)

Randy Cyr: “Where is the most voluminous hardwood in the East? Unless and until the Senator's declining crown is able to make up the difference, the Middleton may be (temporarily) the most voluminous "tree" in the East. But I suspect there are others of greater volume.” (Mar. 02, 2004)

Report Compiled by Edward Frank

Middleton Live Oak /Sag Branch Tulip Project 
Supplemental Material

The previous document was compiled to bring together material that was spread across at least a half a dozen different threads on this website dealing with this project into one coherent document.  At the time it was put together each of the major participants was contacted and given an opportunity to provide additional comments or add supplemental materials to the draft report.  At this time we still do not have the final volume numbers from Dr. Van Pelt, nor copies of the 3-d models of the trees involved, but a better report is needed for the website in spite of those limitations.  If additional materials are received they will be added to the report document.  There are also additional photographs available that may be organized into additional galleries if needed.

 Middleton Live Oak Age

Obviously, the 10 foot diameter Middleton Oak can't be cored. We tried to count rings on a cut limb but they were absolutely indiscernible. I wish someone kept a cookie of wood from the limb- it was near the base and solid. Actually, the cut was a sorry excuse for a "pruning" cut and a slab could be removed and counted. The cut limb can be seen in the photo below above Brian Hinshaw’s head (far left). BVP is holding the tree still for the photo.   Will Blozan, Nov. 23, 2007