Tree Championship in Greater Kansas City

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Tree Championship in Greater Kansas City

Categories: Blog, Garden Guru


A list of the champion trees of Greater Kansas City dates back to 1955 when the late Stanley R. McClane, landscaping superintendent for the J.C. Nichols Company made the first survey. The list designated the largest known example of well over 100 species and varieties of trees in Jackson, Clay, Wyandotte and Johnson counties. The picture above is of the champion Saucer Magnolia in full bloom at the historic Elmwood Cemetery in Kansas City.

Here’s an image of our worn copy of the original 1955 Kansas City Star newspaper that first published Stanley McLane’s local champion tree list.

Chuck Brasher, arborist for Country Club Tree Service, renewed McClane’s list in 1974 and maintained and enhanced it until his death in 2012. Chuck was an extraordinary arborist and had an uncanny ability to spot and size up champion trees!

Here’s the cover of a 1994 edition of Star Magazine that featured Chuck Brasher as keeper of Kansas City’s trees.

In 2013 Powell Gardens offered to continue the list and make it a resource for the Greater Kansas City community. Area tree professionals provided input in 2014 on how to make the list more meaningful to citizens and professionals alike. The updated list includes the champion tree for each species as well as variety and runner-up trees so that mature examples in various parts of the metro can be easily visited. The area has expanded to include current city limits beyond the four county region and all contiguous communities. The most recent list measures more than 200 species and varieties of trees.

The local champion Western Soapberry (Sapindus saponaria var. drummondii) in Olathe is currently the only local champion tree that is also a National Champion.

The local champion American Smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) is also the Missouri State Champion of its kind—it can be seen on the south side of the historic Vaile Mansion in Independence.

The local champion tree list is valuable because it demonstrates the ultimate size of any tree in our region. It has been maintained for over 60 years, and some trees have remained on the list since its inception. This measurement over time provides valuable information on the growth and longevity of area trees. Large trees on the list represent species and varieties that have withstood the test of time and our extremes of weather. They are proven well adapted to our region and good choices for a sustainable landscape.

This huge trunked Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra) at Elmwood Cemetery has been on the champion tree list since its beginning in 1955.

The local champion Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii) in Loose Park demonstrates that this magnificent tree species (which is native solely to the Lower Mississippi River drainage from southeastern Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico) will thrive in the long run in our climate. Swamp Chestnut Oak makes a superior long-lived shade tree with beautiful fall color, strong ecosystem services and high value to wildlife.

Not all trees on the list are gigantic as some trees are naturally smaller, do not grow large in our climate or are new to cultivation in the region. Trees are measured by circumference in inches; height and average crown spread in feet. The final score is the sum of 1 point for each inch of circumference (measured at 4 ½ feet up the trunk), plus 1 point for every foot of height, plus a quarter point for each foot of spread.

The local champion Seven Sons Tree (Heptacodium miconioides) at the Kauffman Memorial Garden is just 22 feet tall. It’s naturally a small tree, but it is spectacular when in full bloom in September. Seven Sons Tree is native to China but attracts many pollinators and butterflies, including migrating Monarchs.

The Greater Kansas City champion tree list is inspiring on how many kinds of trees thrive in our community. Our heartland location allows trees to thrive from north, south, east and west. It also lists all those native to our local woodlands.

This Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) at Powell Gardens was grown from a cutting off the champion Southern Magnolia. Southern Magnolia represents a southern species of tree and it’s the hardiest of its kind—Powell Gardens is propagating as many of the local champion trees as possible as part of its Legacy Tree Program to preserve and protect the unique cultural and genetic resources of local trees. We plan to accredit this valuable nationally significant collection with the American Public Gardens Association.

We plan for the updated Champion Trees of Greater Kansas City to be a valuable resource to all communities in the metro and a way to map out where to go to observe the region’s incredible tree diversity. If you want to see what a potential tree selection will look like when it’s mature, no problem: it’s just a few clicks away to find it on a map and visit it in person, or pull up an online image. Visit to download the list.

This is looking up into the tallest tree in the metro: a Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) in fall color at historic Mount Washington Cemetery.

If you would like to see a champion tree in person and learn more about our community’s legacy trees, participate in one of our four annual tree walks (RSVP required) at various sites in Kansas City. Tree walks are scheduled for Sunday afternoons from 1 to 3 p.m. The 2016 schedule includes Roanoke Park on May 22, Union Cemetery on June 26, Elmwood Cemetery on August 28, and Loose Park on October 23. The walks are $7 each or free for members of Powell Gardens.

The Union Cemetery tree tour group in 2015 poses under the local champion Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), which is just 6 points shy of the Missouri state champion hackberry tree.

Arbor Day 2016 is four weeks away (April 1 in Missouri—Arbor Day in Kansas is April 29) and we hope this blog inspires you to plant a tree.

This Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) was planted at Powell Gardens on Arbor Day 1990 to honor Chuck Brasher. This tree stands as a great memorial to Chuck and his support of Powell Gardens since the Gardens’ humble beginnings. I’ll repeat that old saying: The best time to plant a tree was a long time ago. The next best time is today.