Lauren Takores: On the Bright Side: Oneonta butternut tree declared largest in state

Feb. 2—On a quiet street in the city of Oneonta's Sixth Ward stands a century-old butternut tree, recently declared the largest tree of its kind in New York state by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The massive deciduous tree was located on Morse Street by certified arborist Fred Hathaway, who serves as the city's arborist.

After measuring the tree — 64 feet tall and 264 inches around, or 7 feet, 2 inches in diameter — Hathaway applied in April for status on the New York State Big Tree Register, which is maintained by the DEC.

The average butternut tree is closer to 70 or 80 feet, he said — the circumference counts more in the DEC's measuring process.

Butternut trees usually live to 75 years.

"I'm guessing this tree started its life here and around 1900," he said. "I think it's about 115, 120 years old."

The property is about an acre in size, owned by Jon Nickerson.

Nickerson said he hasn't done much work to the tree, besides removing a large branch that arched across the street and over the neighbor's yard.

"I think the soil here is quite good," Hathaway said. "It doesn't have much competition."

The butternut is the only tree in Otsego County on the 2024 big tree list. There was no butternut tree on last year's list.

Big tree contenders are measured by height, circumference at four and a half feet off the ground and average crown spread. From those measurements, DEC calculates total point score.

Hathaway said the butternut tree on Morse Street had such deformities at four-and-a-half feet that he took the measurement at three-and-a-half feet, noting the alternative measurement on the application.

Champion trees must be remeasured every 10 years to remain on the list, according to DEC rules. Co-champions can be declared if two or more trees of the same species score within a certain number of points of each other.

The big tree list is updated once a year in the fall or winter and released in January. The largest tree on the list is an eastern cottonwood tree in Rensselaer County with a height of 108 feet a circumference of 405.25 inches, or 10.75 feet in diameter, last measured in 2022.

A devil's walking stick tree in Schoharie County is tied for biggest tree of its kind with another tree of the same species in Wyoming County.

Hathaway said the butternut tree is within three or four points of the national champion in Washington state, and he's contemplating submitting the information for the National Champion Trees Program, run by nonprofit organization American Forests.

Hathaway located a few other butternuts on the property, and said there are about 50 throughout the city. Butternuts are a species native to the area.

"They're not a common lumber tree," he said, "but the wood from this, to me, is beautiful. And the nut has a very sweet flavor to it."

Hathaway said that a very hard frost last May likely killed the buds and prevented the city's butternut trees from producing any nuts.

"I'm hoping for next year," he said.