Western Woody Wonders

SIMPLY TREES May 2013

Amy Seiler & Doak Nickerson, Nebraska Forest Service (photo of Doak with State Champion Rocky Mountain maple near Harrison)

When you think of Nebraska, specifically western Nebraska, one of the first thoughts that comes to mind is rolling hills covered in prairie. The second thought might be fields of corn, wheat, sugar beets or beans. Large trees are about the last thing we expect in a part of the state known for extremes of temperature, drought, fire and wind.

      Though the eastern half of the state can boast higher numbers of trees, western Nebraska has some very notable trees. It’s amazing some tree species are even growing in the western part of the state, let alone thriving. In fact, some of them are challenging eastern species for State Champion status.

      Rolling shortgrass prairie, interspersed with periodic cottonwoods or pine or cedar windbreaks, dominates much of the northern Panhandle. Rarely visible from highways are the dramatic and wondrously unique trees growing in many of its communities, rural cemeteries and farmsteads.  Hidden well off the beaten path are some amazing “western woody wonders.”

      Tucked off Highway 2 near Hyannis, on a ranch in the middle of the sandhills, sits one of Nebraska’s grandest and most beautiful white pines. The almost perfectly-formed tree rises 92 feet above the ground with a canopy spread of 35 feet. It grows on a homestead with underground springs that provide a moist but not saturated soil environment. Nestled at the base of grass-covered sand dunes, ponderosa pine and spruce surround it and protect this sensitive pine from strong winds. It’s truly a wondrous tree for western Nebraska.

      The town of Rushville, on Highway 20 in the northern Panhandle, is home to several towering Douglas fir. Some of them are in the rural cemetery, but the most amazing specimen is in a residential area. A giant on the prairie, it stands nearly 90 feet high with a trunk diameter of more than 30 inches.  Its trunk has nails, staples and other oddities embedded into it but it continues to grow despite minimal care.

      Continuing down Highway 20 into the community of Chadron, you’ll find the largest Colorado blue spruce in the state. This majestic conifer towers 80 feet above the administration building, greeting visitors as they enter the campus of Chadron State College.

      The small community of Crawford, also on Highway 20, is home to one of the most outstanding concolor firs in the state. It thrives in an unusual location—a dry, minimally maintained cemetery just north of town—completely defying recommendations on how to site this species. Typically in the west we site firs in areas with cool, moist soil and protection from wind. But this fir appears perfectly happy among junipers and buffalograss in a hot, dry, very exposed environment. Even with a co-dominant leader, it stands a stately 45 feet high with a spread of 25 feet.

      Farther down Highway 20 is the tiny community of Harrison, home of the world-famous Coffey Burger and, more important to tree-lovers, home to the State Champion Rocky Mountain maple. Towering ponderosa pines stand guard around it for protection (or maybe adoration).

      Though the State Champion ponderosa pine is currently in the eastern part of the state, the hunt is on to find a challenger and return the honor out west where it rightly belongs.  Many worthy contenders can be found in the forests of the Pine Ridge and potentially in the Wildcat Hills near Gering.  These beautiful forests are home to trees that may not have the scale and stature of ponderosa pines in the eastern part of the state but the gnarly, wind-whipped, fire-scarred character of these centuries-old trees deserves recognition.

      Whether they occur naturally or were planted by hand, there are some outstanding trees in western Nebraska. It’s always a nice surprise when a tree species thrives in unlikely circumstances and proves us wrong. That is precisely the case with some of our “western woody wonders.” More on Nebraska State Champion trees at: http://nfs.unl.edu/championtree/championtreeregister.asp.