NLI’s Legacy Tree Program announces the featured tree of the month for March is a Black Maple (Acer nigrum) growing on the public right-of-way along Moody Road west of Rockton, which measures as the new State Champion! Height: 73 feet, Crown Spread: 78 ft-3 inches, Circumference: 14 feet!


Black Maple on Moody Rd., Rockton IL. Photo by Rob Clark

NLI’s Legacy Tree Program has discovered what will be a new State Champion Tree. The featured Black Maple tree was measured on Valentine’s Day by Natural Land Institute Trustee Rob Clark. Rob used his drone to measure the height, but the total score of the height, crown spread and circumference of the tree tallies to 260.5, well above the 236.5 & 241 scores of the current Illinois co-champions. Moody Road lies on the north edge of the Pecatonica River floodplain.

This view of the Black Maple on Moody Rd. gives some perspective as to how large it is. Notice the size of trees near it and see Rob Clark along the road as he takes this photo with his drone.

Black Maple is a special native tree, related to the well-known Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) and sometimes considered just a subspecies of Sugar Maple. It has leaves that are more 3-lobed, always cupped so the edges droop downward and the under surface of the leaf is fuzzy. All these are adaptations of the tree to lessen water transpiration from its leaves. It thrives in more water stressed environments than the sugar maple so that it is found in drier and wetter sites!  (Without going into all the science behind it, saturated soils equate to a physiological drought in trees.) It is the characteristic climax/old growth tree of the Pecatonica River floodplain where it grows on higher terraces that don’t flood too long. Recent extreme flooding has killed off most of the ancient trees along the river including all the old ones in the Pecatonica River Forest Preserve’s Illinois Nature Preserve and at NLI’s Conklin Preserve. This tree is on a bit higher ground and continues to thrive.

We would love to find the story why this tree on the road right-of-way has been spared by the road crews. Black Maples are considered “Hard” maples with very strong wood that has anti-microbial properties (hence its use on cutting boards and gymnasium floors). The trees are very windfirm too. Black Maples bloom in early-mid spring with tiny chartreuse flowers dangling on the ends of strings before they leaf out. This gives the tree a shaggy glowing yellow-green vibe at about the same time our spring woodland wildflowers are at their peak. The foliage is dark green and turns more muted tones in the fall, usually golden to apricot and not the brilliant hues of its related sugar maple. It does have the same sweet sap that makes a fantastic maple syrup. The seeds are also the classic “helicopter” samara of maples that help it fly and disperse in the wind.

Black Maple is a great climate resilient tree that has one of the highest values to Nature, being host to countless insects, birds and mammals. It is rarely cultivated because it grows slow as a young plant – growing strong roots before taking off. Not economical in today’s fast pace nursery production to produce cheap trees. We look forward to collecting seeds from this tree and share them as part of our legacy tree program. They will be worth the wait! If we ever get a dendrochronologist to sample this tree we’ll probably be shocked by its age which is certainly over 200 years – they can live to 400 or more.

For more information about NLI’s Legacy Tree Program and to find the nomination form visit:, call 815/964-6666 or email


This is a close up of the Black Maple. Photo by Alan Branhagen


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