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2 McKee Gardens palms declared ‘champion trees’

Photo: The Florida State Champion Tree, Phoenix dactylifera Date Palm

Two stately palm trees shading Vero Beach's McKee Botanical Gardens have been officially declared the largest of their species growing in Florida by the state Forest Service.

A date palm that stands 44 feet tall, has a circumference of 39 inches, and a crown spread of 17 1/2 feet and a 43-foot Grugru palm with a 31-inch circumference and 22-foot crown spread just made the National Register of Big Trees maintained by the American Forestry Association – one of the nation's oldest conservation organizations. The new honorees are among 126 "champion trees" registered in the Sunshine State.

They were nominated by Andreas Daehnick, McKee's director of horticulture and research, and measured by Florida Forest Service senior forester Calin Ionita.

"It's just something a lot of people are interested in," Daehnick said of the big tree registry. "These are the biggest trees of their type and it could be that the tree is genetically a little different that, in time, makes this a better, stronger tree than the one next to it."

Neither Daehnick nor Ionita could determine the age of the two champions.

"There are no rings on the palms to count," Daehnick said. "They don't expand in diameter; they get taller."

Ionita awarded the trees points toward the champion designation using a formula that adds the circumference in inches to the height in feet to one-fourth of the average crown spread. A designated tree can be demoted if it gets knocked down or loses branches in a storm, for example, so the list changes constantly.

Besides the two champions, McKee also is home to two "challenger trees" – close in size to the champs, but not quite there. They are a royal palm (82 feet tall, 54 inches around, with a 16 1/2-foot crown spread) and a Canary Island date palm (53 feet tall, 66 inches around, with a 21 1/2-foot crown).

According to the tree registry, Florida has the most national champions of any state, owing mostly to its warm climate that harbors many species found nowhere else in the country.

The largest native tree in Florida, according to the Forest Service, is a bald cypress in Hamilton County that stands 84 feet tall, has a 557-inch circumference, and has a crown spread of 49 feet.