Tim Lindsay was driving down Blackstrap Road in Falmouth when a stand of tall trees snagged his attention.
“I thought it was walnut, but they looked weird,” Lindsay said.
He made a U-turn and parked his white Jeep Liberty (license plate “Tree”). Walking to the nearest house, he knocked on the door to explain to the property owner, Bruce Stillings, that he wanted to measure his trees.
Lindsay submits trees to the Maine Register of Big Trees, a record of the biggest trees in Maine published by the Maine Department of Conservation Forest Service. On the 2009-2010 register, Lindsay’s name appeared more than any other name — for 30 of the 159 species of champion trees.
The strange trees in Falmouth turned out to be English walnut trees planted by the property’s owner in the 1920s. One of the trees, which Lindsay measured at 45 feet tall with a 45-foot crown spread, became the record English walnut in the state.
Lindsay’s search for giant trees began nine years ago when he noticed that a Massachusetts man was finding trees for the register.
“I said, ‘No, no. That shouldn’t be that way. Maine people should find these trees,’” he said. “I’m on properties every day. I figure I’m in a good position to look for these grand old trees.”
Lindsay, representative for Bartlett Tree Expert, educates people about the cultural requirements of plants and trees, and manages properties throughout southern Maine.
“For a while there, it became an addiction,” he said.
The search is competitive for him. Many of the nominators on the register have fun trying to best one another’s finds.
“I’m a licensed arborist and ISA [International Society of Arboriculture] certified,” he said. “I’ve learned to look for the unique characteristics of trees.”
He’s interested in the leaves’ shape and color, bark texture, fruit, nuts and, of course, overall size.
The champion trees are determined by points, calculated by adding trunk circumference in inches, height in feet and ¼ of the crown spread in feet.
Lindsay circles the tree trunk with a measuring tape to find the circumference, but the other two measurements are estimates. He lays the tape measurer on the ground and eyeballs the canopy of the tree at different widths.
“For the height, that’s a little bit tricky,” he said. “I have a new catalpa tree I’m going to be submitting. What I did for that one is: I have a throw bag with a line and weight on it up over the center of the tree and catch it over branches near the top.
“There are guys out there that have a little device [to measure tree height], and that’s too expensive.”
The Maine Department of Conservation verifies the size of record trees.
Since Lindsay searches residential property, his record trees usually aren’t native to Maine but have been introduced to the state and now thrive here. For example, the river birch he found in Kennebunk in 2002 was introduced to Maine forests because it tends to be insect-free.
“People are starting to plant the Japanese white pine and Himalayan white pine with large, cool-looking pine cones that stand out,” he said.
The moose maple, a shade-loving tree, is the only record tree he has found in the woods. When young, the tree’s bark is green with vertical, white stripes, and it develops a fairly large leaf for a maple, said Lindsay.
“If I really want to get adventurous, I hear there’s large stands of old trees set back in woods in Rockland,” he said “Then I’d have to climb the tree to figure out the height, and I’m not that adventurous.”
In Eliot, he stopped his Jeep to measure a yellow birch. Though the birch wasn’t a record, Lindsay stumbled upon an unexpected champion.
“As I was walking away from the house, I looked into the backyard and saw this huge [Japanese] umbrella-pine,” he said. “They have a real coarse, dense needle. It was a really tall tree. It just slaughtered the old record.”
He has good luck in Bath, where he found several record trees: a 40-foot tall katsura, 50-foot tall honey locust and 70-foot tall European Ash.
The honey locust is a dark, dense deciduous tree native to eastern North America, while the katsura is an ornamental tree with heart-shaped leaves that is native to Japan. And the European ash with its deep green, jagged leaves is native to most of Europe.
When he doesn’t recognize a tree — a rare occurrence — he gets together with people at Skillins Greenhouse and O’Donal’s Nursery to hit the books.
The love of plants was instilled in Lindsay early in life. In 1974, he left the U.S. Navy to study soil and plants at Southern Maine Vocational Institute, now Southern Maine Community College.
“I was bit by the love of trees, and the rest is history,” he said. “Now, at Bartlett Tree Expert, I get to take it to the new level and talk about plant health care with clients — how to keep trees alive and turn trees around that are starting to go into decline. People care about these trees and that gets even more exciting than finding these big trees.”
Bartlett Tree Expert deals with invasive plants, pest and plant disease.
Lindsay educates his customers about the Asian longhorn beetle, which is native to China and was first discovered in the U.S. in New York in 1996. The beetles kill trees by tunneling into the trunks and branches and disrupting the sap flow. It hasn’t reached Maine but is destroying trees in Massachusetts.
Bartlett Tree Experts uses natural oils and soaps to try to rid trees of pests and disease, but sometimes situations call for a different defense. The international company was involved in building a firewall against the Asian longhorn beetle in Massachusetts by helping the United States Department of Agriculture inject 45,000 tree trunks with insecticide, said Lindsay.
Although Lindsay is working with Bartlett Tree Experts to keep trees healthy, he has kept up the search for champion trees.
“Most of the time, people are pretty proud of their trees, and if I spark the interest that they might have a record tree, they are all excited about the beauty of it,” he said.
He’s determined to find an American elm to replace the previous record elm, Yarmouth’s “Herbie,” which recently died of Dutch elm disease.
“It’s really too bad,” he said. “Now we have to fill the void.”