By Susan Stephens
MT. MORRIS — There’s no denying the Bald Hill Prairie Preserve is a pretty special place. Last year, the Byron Forest Preserve District acquired the gravel hill prairie that had been used for cattle grazing for decades. For one thing, Forest Preserve Executive Director Todd Tucker says it’s the second highest point in Ogle County. It has a great view of the Rock River. It’s home to endangered and threatened plants and animals, like woolly milkweed and short-eared owls.
Oh, and the largest tree in Illinois.
Tucker noticed the surprisingly large eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) last November, months after the forest preserve district purchased the former ranch land. It’s at the base of Bald Hill, or Old Baldy, as some locals remember it. It doesn’t look that big until you get close because it’s situated at the bottom of a steep gravel hill and until recently was surrounded by smaller trees and invasives.
“When I first went up to it, I’m 6 feet 2 inches and have over a six-foot reach,” Tucker said, stretching his arms wide. “It took me six times to put my hands around the bark and measure where my last hand was. It took me six times to hug the tree to get all the way around it. And I thought, man, we might have something here.”
And man, did they. Using a drone with good elevation software, they found it was 120 feet tall. It’s 28.5 feet around. Those calculations, plus the tree’s average canopy or dripline, added up to a Big Tree Total of 491 points. Four points more than the previous state champ, a bald cypress in southern Illinois.
There’s one person who could crush or confirm this record – Jay Hayek, the University of Illinois Extension’s forestry specialist and keeper of the Big Tree List. In an email, Hayek confirmed that “the eastern cottonwood that Todd Tucker nominated is indeed the biggest tree in Illinois based on the measurements that he supplied and self-verified.”
We will set aside the big tree purist argument for now, about whether this is a single stem or fused stem tree, which may or may not matter anyway. Hayek states “we are currently considering this specimen as the largest Big Tree in Illinois.”
The public gets a chance to stand in the shadow of the biggest tree in Illinois at the grand opening of the Bald Hill Prairie Preserve at 5502 N. Silver Creek Rd. in Mt. Morris Saturday, April 28. The Arbor Day celebration includes tours of the new preserve, hay rides, and tree giveaways.