His lips aren't numb and, having had no seizures, he reckons the small melons he's been gnawing on aren't poisonous. Part of a highway maintenance crew, he was riding a grader a few days ago when he saw the golden, duck egg-sized melons growing wild in a ditch. An incautious type, he's been eating them since.

He thinks they might be good in a pie but now wants to know just what's been sliding down his gullet. That's why he walked into the Monroe County Extension office and spilled a handful of the fruit onto Reggie Talley's desk.

“Coyote melon!” says agent Talley, a few minutes later, pointing at his computer screen. “Check it out. That's what those are.”

The man accepts the news happily, scoops his find from the desk, and says, “You're not the melon man, Reggie. You're still the tree man — always the tree man.”

Talley, grinning beneath a wall festooned with champion tree certificates, doesn't argue.

You can be in the record books, too. Talley, a veteran Extension agent, certainly wishes you would try.

“It's great when we find and verify these champion trees,” he says, warming to the subject. “They're special, really, and worth recognizing and preserving. And if we can get some competition going on, that'll just mean more trees are found. If someone knocks my finds off the list, I'll just have to search even harder for a bigger one. No complaints — I'd love for people to be excited about finding champions.

“I like competition. The first Arkansas champion redbud I found was right across from the service station when you came into town. Shortly after that, a forester around Jonesboro, Ark., was called on a tree that was, maybe, 10 points bigger than mine. That fired me up to find a bigger one. And I did find it: the second largest in the country.”

Talley's first champion is a massive fig tree (still growing in Brinkley, Ark.) that he found across the street from a cotton gin in 1991. Since then, he's located 11 champions in Monroe County and 34 champions total.

Clarendon, Ark., where Talley is based on the banks of the White River, “is blessed with a lot of old, old trees. Folks tend to want them around houses and leave them alone. For some reason, we've got a bunch of non-native species, too. I'll show you.”

So begins the Clarendon tour by champion trees.

The tree in front of a trailer a block from Talley's office is a champion pawpaw — “sometimes called an Arkansas banana or a custard apple,” he says. “That tree had me fooled for a long time from the truck. I never got out and closely examined it because I thought it would put some flowers on and give itself away. Anyway, it turned out to be a pawpaw.”

Riding through town, his eyes dart around checking the flora, looking for anything odd. Nursing a bum leg (a horse-riding mishap decades ago finally caught up to him recently), this is how he does much of his tree scouting now: riding around just looking.

“Sometimes, if things are slow, I'll just go driving on a weekend to find big trees. Finding one is like finding something on a treasure hunt. Your blood pressure picks up. These trees are treasures, in a sense. Driving around, I just pay attention. Unusual growth patterns, anything to catch my eye.”

Talley uses colloquial names for the trees, but scientific monikers don't trip him up — he uses them easily and often.

“I've always been interested in the outdoors,” he says. “Forestry intrigues me. Some folks like looking for birds, marking down where and when they saw a particular species. I'm that way with trees.”

Once in college, a love of romping through the woods gelled with science.

“One of the most influential people in my life is Gary Tucker, my botany professor at Arkansas Tech. I also took dendrology (identifying trees and shrubs by their characteristics) and taxonomy with him. He inspired me and that inspiration naturally dove-tailed with my love for forestry.”

Several turns from the pawpaw, the aforementioned, gnarled redbud sits in front of an aging clapboard house. How to measure such a tree?

A standardized measure — “the bigness index” — is used to determine tree size. The weighted system begins with a measure of a tree's circumference at breast-height (about 4.5 feet) in inches. The height of the tree is then measured in feet. The widest and narrowest points of the tree are also noted. Those numbers are added together for an average that is divided by four. The result will tell if you've hit the tree jackpot.

“You have to have a certified forester measure a tree for champion status,” says Talley. “And we don't drag a crane around to measure height. That's done by an instrument that checks angles and correlates them to height.”

Just down the street from the redbud, the champion golden raintree has been stripped of plumage. It sits hard against the street, frankly looking sad. Dried seed pods hang from the Chinese native in clusters. Finding non-native species isn't all that unusual, says Talley. Many trees — especially Asian varieties — got to this country as packing material. The seed pods of the trees were used as natural Styrofoam. Once here, the seeds spilled from the crates and slowly spread around the nation.

“In June, the tree will flower prolifically and then, all at once, the yellow flowers will drop, causing a ‘golden rain.’ It's very beautiful — even if all the flowers do land on the road.”

Another two blocks and Talley points to the largest privet hedge in the state. Red berries dot the unkempt plant, its trunk nearly as big around as a phone pole. “When I was a kid, we made bows and arrows out of privet branches,” says Talley. “We'd have had a hard time sawing through that.”

There is a small subculture of tree-loving folks like Talley in Arkansas. Make that very small. “I'm kind of lonely,” chuckles Talley. “A friend of mine in Hazen, a retired farmer, is a tree nut. But folks like us aren't easy to find. Most just take trees for granted. There is a great diversity in Arkansas: we've got close to 300 native trees alone. There's like 2,000 across the country — so much to discover!”

Talley motions to a house on the east side of the street.

“A lady right here asked me to check on her Chinese date tree. While I was there, she showed me a Civil War artifact. Her husband had dug up a 32-pound artillery shell. It was fired June 24, 1864, here in Clarendon, during the capture and sinking of the Queen City, a Union gunboat.”

Further up the street, Talley points out a corkscrew willow that's being measured in a few days. He is confident it will be in the running for champion. “I think it's a native of Asia. Florists often use the twisty branches of this tree for arrangements. We had two more in town, but they became diseased and died.”

Half a mile away, the town boneyard is home to champion eastern red and western white cedars. Amid grandly carved and weathered 1800s-era markers, the slow-growing red cedar has lived to great age. “I believe this tree is connected with Masonic traditions, and some may have been planted around by Masons,” says Talley. “It signified eternal life.”

Trees have been very important for the state historically. “When the first Europeans came here,” he says, “Arkansas was probably covered 85 percent with trees. Now, it's down around 50 percent — but that's still a large portion.”

On the way back into town, Talley's attention is drawn to a small burial plot atop a hill surrounded by wet, unharvested soybean fields. Talley says the plot harbors yet another champion, a possum haw. This one is male, without fruit.

“Like the privet hedge, I've never seen another one with such a large trunk,” says Talley.

Driving up to the plot, I can see nothing except a large, sheltering magnolia.

“Oh, it's hidden from the road by the magnolia,” says Talley. “I wouldn't have found it if a farmer hadn't asked me to check some of his row crops. I found this possum haw from the backside. That's an example of why it pays keep your eyes open all the time. I mean, you might have something really special just outside your front door. But you'll never know if you don't pay a little attention.”

(For more information on champion trees, visit http://www.forestry.state.ar.us/education/education.html)


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com