Bismarck’s Highland Acres is home to a state champion red oak tree, whose important job it is to supply ample shade in the summer and woodstove kindling in the winter.
The non-native Quercus rubra has been added to the 2017 North Dakota Register of Champion Trees, which is the official list of the first- and second-largest trees of each native and non-native species in the state.
“We’ve always been excited about the tree, but we’re even more excited now that it’s a champion,” said Jim Fuglie, who, along with his wife, Lillian Crook, owns the now-famous red oak.
With a total score of 166 points, the 42-year-old tree has a circumference of 5 feet 2 inches, a height of 70 feet and an average crown spread of 68 feet.
“The tree is so massive it shades the entire yard,” Fuglie said, noting his wife planted 120 varieties of shade-loving hostas around the tree’s base shortly after they purchased the property in October of 2009.
The tree was bare branched and bracing for winter when the couple closed on the house. You can imagine their surprise when the tree leafed out in the spring.
“It’s just this spectacular big tree. You see it from 150 feet and think, ‘Holy cow,’” Fuglie said.
“It’s a gorgeous specimen,” Crook added.
The tree was planted in 1976 by Pieter Smeenk and his son, Lars, for their wife and mother, Birgit. The Smeenks were the first family to own the “Red Oak House,” located at 920 Arthur Drive
“Birgit wanted that tree so badly,” said neighbor Myrna Blackstead, who has lived in Highland Acres for the past 52 years. According to her recollection, the champion tree was transferred from the Smeenks’ lake property in Minnesota, after their first red oak was trampled during outdoor play.
Birgit Smeenk watered the tree daily. For the first few years, it didn’t grow. It wasn’t until a water main broke and saturated the ground that the tree really took off, according to Crook, who recounted the stories told to her by the Smeenk family.
“We think it’s as tall as it’s going to get,” Fuglie said.
The red oak starts leafing out in June, and is one of the last Highland Acres trees to lose its color in the fall.
“It’s just beautiful,” said Blackstead, who can look out her front window to view the tree anytime she pleases.
The champion tree has weathered storms, including a microburst, and, most recently, survived an infestation of aphids, which are tiny soft-bodied insects that suck the sap from stems and leaves of various plants.
“We’re taking good care of it,” Fuglie said.
Crook, a former university librarian who most recently worked for the National Park Service, and Fuglie, North Dakota’s former tourism director who has worked in public relations, are retired and both enjoy gardening in their spare time. The couple lived in Medora prior to their move to Bismarck.
In order to be considered for the register, Fuglie had to complete a nomination form, which asked for specifics such as the species of the tree and its estimated circumference, height and crown spread. Entries are accepted year round.
Competitive trees are further inspected and measured by forestry service specialists, who tabulate a score based on measurements. The tree with the highest point value in each category wins.
Winning trees remain in the register, which is updated each December, until a more impressive one comes along.
The 2017 register includes six new state champion trees and one new second-place tree.
North Dakota’s Champion Tree Program is sponsored by the North Dakota Forest Service and the Dakotas Society of American Foresters.