Illinois’ largest tree, The Cottonwood, located at Bald Hill Prairie Preserve. Photo: Jill Kennay

NLI’s Legacy Tree Program announces the May Tree of the Month is Illinois’ Largest Tree: The Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) of Bald Hill Prairie Preserve, 5502 N. Silver Creek Rd., Mt. Morris, Ill.

Bald Hill, one of the few places of such exemplary topographical relief anywhere in Illinois, was named in 1872 by locals who used the site as a gathering place for picnics and weddings and a place to sled in winter. It was part of the Ford Ferguson Leaf River Ranch where cattle were grazed as recently as 2018.  The site was originally prairie (“bald”) with some savanna and many unique prairie species surviving until today. In 2017, Peter McDade took ownership of the 160 acres encompassing Bald Hill before working generously with both the Natural Land Institute and the Byron Forest Preserve to preserve the property and its unique remnant prairie and savanna flora. Today the site is owned and managed by the Byron Forest Preserve District.

Todd Tucker hugs Illinois’ largest tree, the cottonwood. Photo: Alan Branhagen

The discovery of the champion tree begins with Todd Tucker, Executive Director of the Byron Forest Preserve District, and Russel Brunner, Superintendent of Land Management, who were amazed by the size of a cottonwood tree in a swale off to the northeast of the hill. Todd submitted the tree to Illinois Extension for inclusion in the Illinois Big Tree Register (https://univofillinois.maps.arcgis.com/apps/Shortlist/index.html?appid=090997c75b2e4ca39dd7d35db4328962 ) and with a height of 122 feet, an average crown spread of 116 feet and a trunk circumference of over 28.5 feet recorded from “official” measurement the tree scored 491 points surpassing the previous record score of 487 points for Illinois’ largest tree.  A new champion of champions!

This champion cottonwood tree, at time of discovery, was estimated to be about 200 years old, making it a tree that started growing when Illinois become a state back in 1818. The tree has become a tourist attraction after being published in the Chicago Sun Times: https://chicago.suntimes.com/2018/4/28/18417847/talking-really-big-eastern-cottonwood-earns-illinois-big-tree-champion

Cottonwoods are the “redwoods” of the Midwest readily growing over 100-feet tall with trunks of 9-feet in diameter.  They are fast growing trees that are either male or female – the namesake female trees produce green chains of fruit capsules that pop open in late spring to the summer solstice and release the tiny seeds attached to a bit of cotton that carries them away. Many despise this aspect of the tree as it can clog screens including in heat exchange units, while others celebrate this sparkling summer snow.  The seed must land on moist, exposed ground and germinates immediately. That was usually at a disturbance from a flood or animal like a buffalo wallow. We can imagine how this tree got its start here.

“Cottonwoods are not recommended as residential or urban trees because their roots seek moisture and they can get into and clog everything from sewer and water pipes to septic fields. They are right at home along swales, creeks, rivers and other wetlands where they are one of the top trees in supporting the web of life around us,” said Alan Branhagen, Executive Director, Natural Land Institute. He goes on to say, “The shiny leaves are on flat stems (petioles) that make the leaves wobble in a breeze, sounding like light applause on a breezy summer day.”

Background and For More Information:

Natural Land Institute launched the Legacy Tree Program in January of this year. It includes recognition of one tree a month that may be the largest of its kind, or have historical or cultural significance. Anyone may nominate a tree on private or public land from NLI’s 12 county region. Other components of the program, a list of the 12 counties, the online nomination form, and the tree of the month since January can be found at: https://www.naturalland.org/nlis-legacy-tree-program-january/, call 815/964-6666 or email info@naturalland.org.


See Bald Hill Prairie on your own or attend the Wildflower Walkabout here on Wed., May 29, 2024. Registration requried for this free walk. Learn more and register here.


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