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What Makes a Champion Tree?

Published on September 28th 2021

by CandideUK. All rights reserved

A large tree in a forest
Discover where to walk among the giants of the natural world with our guide to the UK's champion trees. Plus top tips on how to measure a champion tree and how to grow one at home.
Champion trees are the gold-medal waving Olympians of the Arboreal world, they’re the kind of trees that got picked first in PE, while lesser trees looked on enviously and shifted uneasily in their plimsolls (if trees had feet and went to school). The National Tree Register doesn't hand out this accolade to any old tree. So, how does a champion tree make the grade? The tree in question must survive storms, droughts, drastic changes in climate and the onslaught of pests and diseases. It must grow old and squat or shoot upwards cloud-bound, all the while maintaining good health while escaping the developer’s axe and centuries of human activity. And after weathering all that, the final test comes down to size. Girth and height must be taken into account (measured at 1.5m above the ground) via a comprehensive system outlined by The Tree Register.
There are around 70,000 champs registered, but new specimens are being discovered all the time. The easiest way to spot a champion tree is to look for the supersized trees that dwarf their surrounding companions. Notable trees will have a trunk girth straddling 75cm and tower at 6m or more in height. Large girths are a sign the tree is ancient, whereas the tallest are often still youngsters in their prime. So keep your eyes peeled and a tape measure handy, you never know when you might stumble across a truly special giant.
The beautiful thing about Champion Trees is no two look alike. They range from ancient, gnarly, octopus-limbed Yew trees to stately Cherry trees whose ageing blossom never fails to captivate come spring.

Where to see champion trees

Trewithen Garden

Trewithen literally translates as ‘house of the trees’ and luckily this Cornish gem really does live up to its name. Trewithen Gardens is home to 24 awe-inspiring specimens, from graceful Acers to mighty Magnolias. Most of the trees were brought from Asia as seeds and grown into the towering titans you can see today. Look out for the magnificent Magnolia campbellii subsp.mollicomata ‘Lanarth’, the largest grafted Magnolia of its type in the British isles.
A tree in front of a house

Trewithen Gardens & Parks

One of the loveliest gardens in Cornwall – Trewithen Gardens nails the balance between hidden nooks and sweeping countryside views. Trewithen means ‘house of trees’ so it should come as no surprise that Trewithen Gardens is full of wonderfully woody specimens, from the big blousy Magnolias to graceful Acers. In fact, Trewithen Gardens is home to around 20 champion trees, so-called for reaching the greatest height or girth of their species. As well as these awe-inspiring trees, Trewithen Gardens is full of fabulous flora and fauna, including a spectacular collection of Camellias, which have earned it the accolade of International Camellia society 'Garden of Excellence'. Among the 30 acres of woodland gardens is the Cockpit, where climbing Hydrangeas and exotic Tree Ferns jostle for space under the dappled light of the canopy. Visit in spring when the early flowering Magnolias, Rhododendrons and Camellias are in full swing. After exploring the garden, visitors can enjoy delicious refreshments at the Tea Shed, open until the end of October half term.

Find out more about Trewithen's prized collection of champion trees in this video:

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Sherborne Castle & Gardens

A pallet of golden oranges and fiery red hues greets all those who wander through the tapestry of trees at Sherborne Gardens. This autumnal feast for all the senses is home to many stunning champion trees including Cedars of Lebanon (don’t miss the Blue Atlas Cedar, the Dorset Champion of its type), a Ginkgo tree, Highclere Holly and Holly Oak.
Discover the best Autumn gardens to visit now:

Shugborough Estate

At this sweeping Staffordshire estate, there’s a Yew tree so vast many visitors pass it by assuming it’s an unruly bush. In fact, it’s the widest Yew tree in the UK and possibly Europe too. The 350-year-old marvel spans around 570 feet. To put that into context, it took roughly 160 people to encircle it for an aerial photo opportunity. And if you thought photographing it was tough, imagine having to prune it.
Pin down the UK’s other ancient champion Yews here:

Knightshayes Park

Visitors to Devon would be mad to miss the wooded wonderland at Knightshayes. Among the 18 champions standing proud you’ll find the tallest Redwood in Devon and the second biggest Turkey Oak in the UK. Take the Veteran and Champion tree trail for a delightful dendron-packed day out.

Audley End House and Gardens

Now here’s a contender for your champion tree bucket list. The Audley End Oak might not be the tallest or widest on the register but it is the rarest. It was identified as a hybrid of Holm Oak and Sessile Oak by prolific plantsman Augustine Henry. However, subsequent cuttings have always failed, making the Audley End Oak the last of its kind.

How to grow your own champion tree at home

Lusting after a champion tree of your own and have the space and patience to grow one? The autumn and winter months are the best times to plant trees, as you don't have to be as hot on watering. Here are our top tips on growing your own champion tree.
  • Right tree, right place. Learn about the growing conditions you can offer before choosing your tree and don't assume every member of a species will enjoy the same conditions. Sessile oak, for example, "prefers the boggy, wet uplands of the south-west, whereas English oak is better suited to the drier conditions further east", says the Eden Project.
  • Select an open site with minimal competition from other trees if possible. According to the Woodland Trust "Trees in open settings have a greater volume of wood over all, in the trunk, limbs and roots. The slow ageing process allows more time for this wood to grow and decay, and to form relationships with or provide substrate or shelter for a greater variety of organisms."
  • Choose slow-growing species which tend to be more resilient to external pressures like drought and human activity.
  • Pick native trees as these will have adapted to cope with our weather and will support native wildlife.
  • Water carefully - established trees need a good drenching while overwatering young trees can lead to root rot and eventual death.
  • Mulch your tree with organic matter. This reduces harm from cold and drought stress and helps reduce soil compaction, which could hinder root growth.
  • Avoid synthetic herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers or weed killers which could harm or stunt your tree.
Read our comprehensive guide to planting trees here:

Grow these common champion trees at home

English Oak
Wild Cherry
As well as planting new trees for future generations to enjoy, it’s important we do all we can to protect the trees that populate our landscape now, whether from premature felling or development. Writing in Woodlands (2006), the late Oliver Rackham emphasised this point well: “New planting will not replicate veteran trees and the wildlife that goes with them. Veteran trees are rare, not because of a shortage of young trees, but because middle-aged trees have not been allowed to grow on. The future of veteran trees depends on not felling middle-aged trees when they start to decay.”
Have you ever visited a champion tree? Let us know in the comments.

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