Tsuga Search progress report

February 2006


Compiled by Will Blozan and Jess Riddle

Eastern Native Tree Society


Photos by Will Blozan; graphs by Jess Riddle




Despite the current lack of funding, the Tsuga Search has begun! We explored new areas and revisited previously measured trees. In addition to finding several new record trees, we have added a monocular telescope to our survey equipment. This device has a reticle scale within the optics that allows for remotely measuring the width of a target, and our extensive testing has shown this device to be extremely accurate, even at great distances. Hence, we can accurately determine volumes of trees we have located. We tested the device against actual tree climb data and found the monocular to be within 3-5 % of the climb results. We find those results highly encouraging and have included the tool in routine scouting trips. The device greatly increases survey efficiency by allowing ground-based volume estimations and remote diameter measurements.



Search areas

We have focused recent searches on Cataloochee and Greenbrier. Streams searched in Cataloochee include Jim Branch, eastern Winding Stairs Branch, Hurricane Creek, Cataloochee Creek and lower Winding Stairs Branch. In Greenbrier, we have explored Lowes Creek, lower Cannon Creek, Porters Creek and Kalanu Prong. All these sites exhibit excellent hemlock forests and have been recommended for treatment to the National Park Service. In addition, we visited and measured the tallest known hemlock in Georgia. All sites surveyed were heavily infested with hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA) and showed various signs of decline. Upper Winding Stairs Branch and the groves in Greenbrier still looked healthy, but heavy infestations were indicated by fallen HWA wool.



New tall trees

Before the Tsuga Search began, the Eastern Native Tree Society (ENTS) had located 22 hemlocks over 160’ tall in a combined search period of over 30 years. After just a few trips into the areas listed above, we have increased the total by four to 26 trees over 160’ tall, including a new record for Georgia (first in the state) and the third and fourth tallest living trees in the Smokies. We relocated a tree on Lowes Creek that had not been measured since 1997, and confirmed the height at 166.6’; the highest in Tennessee and third tallest in the park. This tree is just 3.3 feet shorter that the tallest ever recorded, which ENTS documented as 169’10” tall. It grew on Winding Stairs Branch in Cataloochee; unfortunately, it died in 1999. (See Table 1 below for more details.)



Table 1: New tall tree finds >160 feet









Lowes Creek (relocated)

985 ft3




Porters Creek

>850 ft3



Georgia, USFS

Holcomb Falls Trail

>800 ft3




Winding Stairs Branch

1223 ft3




Winding Stairs Branch

1023 ft3



New big trees

The largest living hemlock tree known before the Tsuga Search began was a huge tree on Long Branch in Greenbrier. Will Blozan climbed this tree in 2005, and found the tree to contain 1294 cubic feet of trunk volume. At this time, that tree remains the largest known, but a new find on Kalanu Prong approaches that size with 1270 cubic feet based on the monocular measurements. See Table 2 below (two of the tall trees from above are included).


Table 2: New large tree finds >1000 cubic feet

Tree location


cubic ft

Girth at 4.5’

Girth at 25’

Girth at 50’

Girth at 100’

Girth at 150’

Tree height

Kalanu Prong

1270 ft3







Winding Stairs Branch

1223 ft3







Cataloochee Creek

1076 ft3







Winding Stairs Branch

1077 ft3








Winding Stairs Branch

1023 ft3










Improved search image

The use of the monocular allows graphical representation of trunk profiles and helps produce a visual reference that aides in quick field estimations of relative size. We have learned that in order for a tree to be massive it must be not only large in diameter but also very tall. This fact may appear obvious in hindsight, but trees we once thought were massive are now passed over due to an improved search image. Conversely, smaller girthed trees with minimal taper and great height are larger than we initially thought. See chart below for more details.


Several more trees were found close to 160’, but we are still convinced the 160’ height threshold will stand as exceptional. Our original goal of finding trees over 1300 cubic feet will prove difficult. However, we have knowledge of trees in both Cataloochee and Greenbrier that will surely exceed 1300 cubic feet. Hopes for surpassing the all time record of 1420 cubic feet remain doubtful, but possible.



Recommended treatment areas

Winding Stairs Branch, NC promises to be the premier hemlock habitat in the park. The stream contained five trees over 160’ tall including the two tallest ever located. It also grew the largest hemlock ever documented (1420 ft3), which was also the second tallest ever recorded at 168’11”. This tree died in 1999, presumably from drought stress. A Tsuga Search survey in the vicinity of those dead records located three more notable trees. Two of them are new additions to the “160 Club”, and the other may be one of the ten largest trees yet located. Numerous other hemlocks in the high 150 foot range foreshadow more records to come. The only grove on earth that included more 160’ hemlocks grew in the Ellicott Rock Wilderness on the East Fork of the Chattooga River, SC. That grove, and all six trees in it over 160’, has now succumbed to HWA. Winding Stairs Branch has the highest concentration of super tall and massive hemlocks anywhere heretofore documented. Since many of the trees in the watershed are in good condition with respect to HWA, we HIGHLY recommend extensive treatments in this area. Furthermore, the main entrance road into Cataloochee bisects the watershed, providing a prominent visitor experience. In fact, visitors can see some of the tallest trees from the roadside. Several sections of the watershed include hemlock “bog” forests that contain some exceptional vegetative assemblages and possible rare plants. Goodyera repens, a diminutive orchid believed to be associated with eastern hemlock, grows particularly abundantly in this area.


We would also like to recommend for treatment the incredibly vibrant second-growth hemlock forests along Porters Creek and False Gap Prong. Indeed, some of these forests have been treated (near the parking area for Porters Creek Trail) but much more exists in good condition. In general, the tallest hemlocks are old trees growing in undisturbed forests. However, the young groves on Porters Creek and False Gap Prong have spectacular growth rates with some trees already exceeding 140’ in height, and they may have the potential to eventually surpass in height any of the trees in the remaining old-growth forests.


Our other recommendation considers not so much a specific area but a community type. In our surveys we have traversed many acres of hemlock/silverbell/Fraser magnolia forests. We believe this assemblage is endemic to the Smokies and as such should have representative examples preserved. These forests are also unusual in that they are low-elevation ridge communities with a high hemlock component and lack the ubiquitous rhododendron shrub layer. They more closely resemble northeastern hemlock forests than the classic southern Appalachian moist acid-cove hemlock/heath community. Having a very high mountain silverbell (Halesia tetraptera var. monticola) component makes them all the more unique, as this species is scarce outside of the Smokies. Three former national champion silverbells grew in these forests- which will presumably be heavily impacted by the loss of eastern hemlock.


Next steps


Over the coming weeks, we will spend more time in upper Caldwell Fork and the north slopes of Mount LeConte and Mount Guyot. Buck Fork, Middle Prong and Surry Fork hold especially great promise. We will also revisit several specimens previous ENTS surveys have located and estimate volumes with the monocular.


In early March, we plan to climb the “Caldwell Colossus”. This tree (left - photo courtesy of Michael Davie), on Caldwell Fork, NC, promises to lay claim- at the least- to the second largest hemlock ever documented. We also plan to climb and measure an enormous tree near Highlands, NC that was located during a beetle release for the U.S. Forest Service in 2004. That tree will also vie for the top position. These trees are nearly identical in diameter and height, so climbs are needed to reveal which tree is the largest.



Another tree to be revisited is a new National Champion nominee (pictured with Jess at right). Although relatively short, this huge, 17’6” girth X 144’ tall hemlock on Dunn Creek will likely place itself in the top ten big trees due to its massive lower trunk.


The Dunn Creek tree will replace the previous National Champion tree that grew on Ramsay Branch on the south slope of Greenbrier Pinnacle. The tree, which fell in 1999, was 164.7 feet tall- one of the tallest known hemlocks in the park.





Eastern hemlock volume profiles: new trees as of February 2006



Following are summary pages of a few new trees found within the Tsuga Search.


Left: Trunk detail: treated tree #8

Jim Branch, NC
































Looking “down the throat” of a giant tree on Hoglen Branch, NC









Eastern hemlock profile: Kalanu Prong, TN


We completed a survey of Kalanu Prong on February 3rd, 2006. Large hemlocks were scarce, but one in particular caught our eye. Although the girth was not exceptional, the lack of taper and impressive height combined to produce one of the largest hemlocks thus far documented. It is exceeded only by the Long Branch hemlock which is considerably larger in girth but 11 feet shorter.


Basal perimeter        18’6”

Girth at 4.5 feet          15’1”

Girth at 50’                 12’6”

Girth at 100’               7’6”

Total height                152.9’





Hemlock Profile: Lowes Creek, TN


Skeptical of the extremely great height of 165.9’ from 1998, we set out to relocate the tree and verify the original measurement. We found the tree with no problems and the first laser measurement suggested it may be over 166’ tall. After precisely locating midslope and setting up a basal target for the laser, we found it to be an impressive166.6’ tall. The tree quickly tapers into a rather small diameter column- but its great height allows it to rack up nearly 1000 cubic feet according to the monocular data (based on one side).


Basal perimeter        17’3”

Girth at 4.5 feet          14’4”

Girth at 50’                 9’6”

Girth at 100’               7’7”

Maximum height        166.6’

Volume                       985 ft3





Eastern hemlock profile: Cataloochee Creek, NC


This tree illustrates how a lack of taper can really add up to a big tree. Although it is no where near one of the biggest it was an important tree to study with respect to our search image. It is neither exceptionally tall nor wide, but rather exhibits a trunk that is relatively big the whole length of the tree. Its volume of 1076 cubic feet is impressive- but will not be enough to maintain its place in the final lists of giant trees. But with successful HWA treatments, this tree is destined to get huge as witnessed by its huge canopy.


                                                                                       Basal perimeter     17’11”

                                                                                       Girth at 4.5 feet       15’5.5”

Girth at 50’                 10’9”

Girth at 100’               8’0.5”

Maximum height        144.1’

Volume                       1076 ft3





Eastern hemlock profile: Winding Stairs Branch, NC


Will had located a record in his notes of a giant tree on eastern Winding Stairs Branch from 1998. The record included a very tall tree meriting a search of the area to relocate it. The first attempt to relocate the tree was successful. We found the tree just below the gravel entrance road into Cataloochee Valley, but the day was so foggy we could not even get the laser to work. We cross-triangulated the height and estimated it to be between 158 and 166 feet tall. A return trip found it to be in the middle of these estimations- 161.8 feet. This tree is the only known hemlock over fifteen feet in girth that reaches 160’ tall, and is one of the largest hemlocks thus far documented at 1223 cubic feet. The topographical location of this tree defies all we previously knew about where the tall trees grow. The lack of adjacent shelter, relatively high elevation, and lack of tall canopy competition do not ordinarily support a tree of this stature.

Basal perimeter        19’5”

Girth at 4.5 feet          15’6”

Girth at 50’                 12’1”

Girth at 100’               7’2.5”

Maximum height        161.8’

Volume                       1223 ft3


Incidental tree measurements

As mentioned in the proposal, we expected incidental tree measurements to enhance our understanding of eastern tree height and size potential. All trees listed below were measured with laser rangefinders following ENTS height measuring protocol. So far, we have located 13 new height records and three new potential state champion trees as listed below:


Species                        Girth    Height              Location                      Champion status

White ash                     13’6”     163.1’               Hurricane Creek, NC      NC State Champion

Chestnut oak                 15’1”     124.5’               Jim Branch, NC             NC State Champion

Fraser magnolia             4’11”     118.7’               Jim Branch, NC             U.S. Height Record

American chestnut         2’5”       75’                    Winding Stairs Br., NC   NC Height Record

Rhododendron               1’2”       30.2’                 Winding Stairs Br., NC   NC Height Record

Silverbell                       7’9”       125.8’               Cannon Creek, TN          TN Height Record

Blackgum                      12’4”     112.1’               Cannon Creek, TN          TN Height Record

American holly               4’6”       106.2’               Cannon Creek, TN          U.S. Height Record

Table mountain pine       4’0”       96.0’                 False Gap Prong, TN      TN Height Record

Black birch                    10’1”     103.9’               Lowes Creek, TN           TN State Champion

Black birch                    8’8”       108.6’               Lowes Creek, TN           TN Height Record

Red Mulberry                 8’2”       81.3’                 Middle Prong, TN           U.S. Height Record

Fraser magnolia             7’6”       118.3’               Porters Creek, TN          TN Height Record

Tuliptree                        21’3”     173.4’               Porters Creek, TN          TN Height Record

Pin cherry                     3’4”       96.0’                 Webb Creek, TN            U.S. Height Record

Sourwood                      3’7.5”    107.7’               Woolly Tops Prong, TN   TN Height Record


Based on the ENTS database, the tuliptree on Porters Creek is the tallest known tree in Tennessee, and the American holly height crushes the previous record in Congaree National Park by nearly 15 feet. Also, the white ash on Hurricane Creek is the second specimen over 160 feet thus far documented, bested only by another tree in the park 167.2’ tall growing on Big Branch, NC.


We used the monocular to approximate the size of some of the larger tuliptrees on Kalanu Prong, TN. One tree, the “Greenbrier Giant,” has long been considered one of the largest, if not the largest, tree in the park. The monocular confirmed the tree’s great size, but the tree does not approach the size of the largest known tree in the park. The volume of the main stem is 2200 cubic feet. This total is less than that of the tree at the end of the unofficial trail to the grove, known as “Boat Gunnel Flats”. That tree, the “Trails End Tulip”, is truly one of the most massive in the park. But even its impressive 2520 cubic foot trunk volume is no match for the immense tuliptree on Sag Branch, NC, which ENTS researchers climbed in 2004. Including limbs, the Sag Branch tree is over 4000 cubic feet. Neither of the Kalanu Prong trees will exceed much over 3000 cubic feet due to their smaller trunks and crowns. ENTS plans to model some of the more publicly visible tuliptrees (such as those on Ramsay Cascades Trail) to help people visualize how big these trees are.




Text Box: “Trails End Tulip”, Kalanu Prong, TN





Will F. Blozan                                                 Jess D. Riddle

President, Eastern Native Tree Society     Eastern Native Tree Society