MIDWAY — The Changing of the Guard is a familiar story in sports.
You know how it goes: A powerful champion emerges to reign for years, admired by all. But, in the fullness of time, the guard changes. The aging hero falters, giving way to a new, stronger champion.
This same story also happens in the world of trees. In fact, it just happened here in Central Kentucky.
For years, a huge bur oak tree in rural Bourbon County has been considered the biggest of its species in the United States. But no more.
Kentucky forestry officials have determined there's an even bigger bur oak living at Airdrie Stud, the Woodford County horse farm owned by former Gov. Brereton Jones and his wife, Libby.
"We knew we had a big bur oak, but we were surprised and thrilled to realize that it was a champion," Libby Jones said Wednesday.
The new 2010 edition of the National Register of Big Trees, published earlier this month, lists the Woodford County giant, along with two co-champions from Missouri and Michigan, as the largest bur oaks in the United States. The register, published by American Forests, a national conservation group, selects trees according to a point system based on their height, circumference and crown spread. The Kentucky, Michigan and Missouri trees received individual point totals ranging from 410 to 415 and are considered co-champions, an American Forests spokeswoman said Wednesday.
The Woodford County bur oak towers 104 feet above the ground, compared with the Bourbon County tree, which was listed at 95 feet. Lexington arborist Dave Leonard says the tree at Airdrie Stud measures more than 90 inches in diameter, has a circumference of 287 inches and a crown spread of about 93 feet.
Leonard, who examined the tree and ran tests Wednesday to estimate its age, said he thinks it's almost 500 years old. In other words, it was a mature tree centuries before the first white hunters ventured into Kentucky in the mid 1700s.
"The growth rings are really tight, which indicates it's even older than we originally thought," Leonard said. "It's an absolutely amazing tree. When we tried to measure the circumference, my tape measure wouldn't even go around the trunk."
Workers from Leonard's company removed dead limbs and debris from high in the tree Wednesday morning, before being chased away by rain and thunderstorms. They plan to return later to install a lightning rod system designed to protect the bur oak from lightning strikes, which could cause severe interior damage and threaten the life of the tree.
Leonard pointed out scars high on the trunk that he said were caused by lighting strikes 40 or 50 years ago. There probably are older scars nearer the top, he said.
Leonard noted the Bourbon County bur oak lost its crown years ago because of lightning damage.
The Airdrie Stud tree stands in a savannah of large trees, including blue ash, walnut and oak, just off the Old Frankfort Pike. But nobody knew just how big the old bur oak was until Kent Slusher, a forester from the Kentucky Division of Forestry, officially measured it. His work confirmed that it was bigger than the then-reigning national champion in Bourbon County.
The tree has aging problems — some of its trunk is hollow — but it's still going strong.
Acorns gathered from the old giant have produced seedlings. They'll be planted somewhere at Airdrie Stud, and one day they might grow bigger than their parent, Libby Jones said.