DAINGERFIELD — The blacktop dead-end road where Wynell Smith Steely lives has been as busy as ever the past two weeks, she says.
She also believes her reigning state champion flowering dogwood tree is as eye-popping as she’s ever seen.
“People have come from far,” Steely said, gazing at the sprawling tree in her backyard. When it received the champion’s title in November 2013, the native Texas tree stood 28 feet, had a 44-foot-wide crown spread and a trunk circumference measuring 85 inches.
It still holds the title, but Steely thinks it’s grown even more since then.
“This year is the most beautiful than I think it’s ever been,” she said, but then added, “It’s beautiful all year round.”
According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, flowering dogwoods typically grow to a height of 35 to 40 feet and live about 80 years. Its white blooms are considered one of the first signs of spring in East Texas forests, but its red fruits provide food to squirrels, deer, other mammals and at least 28 bird species in the fall. Its maroon fall foliage offers yet another season of color in home landscapes and local woods.
In 2013, the Texas A&M Forest Service presented Steely and her now-late husband with a certificate and a letter stating they were the proud owners of “the newest state champion flowering dogwood (Cornus florida).”
More than five years later, Steely’s flowering dogwood remains a state champion listed in the Texas Big Tree Registry. It is one of two state champion trees in Morris County, joining a 98-foot-tall white oak on private property that received its title last June, according to the registry.
In fact, the forest service has recorded 13 state champions among their respective species in eight East Texas counties, including a 95-foot-tall cherrybark oak tree in Panola; a 67-foot-tall black cherry tree and a 107-foot-tall willow oak tree in Harrison County; and an 87-foot-tall southern red oak tree in Shelby County.
Steely’s tree story began in 1965, when she and her first husband, the late Mack Smith, built a home and landscaped the 6-acre property just off U.S. 259 between Daingerfield and Lone Star.
Steely transplanted three small dogwood trees from an area where she grew up north of Hughes Springs. One of the trees died during drought conditions in 2011, and another one stands about 15 feet high in her front yard.
Smith died in 1986, and she later married Cliff Steely, who shared recognition for the state champ dogwood.
It was a friend, Sandy Rose of Arlington, who was traveling from Michigan who stopped by for a visit that led to the state honor.
“He said, ‘What kind of tree is that up there?’ We said it was a dogwood,” Steely remembered.
Rose reached out to the forest service, and some official measurements were taken before getting the honor.
However, the dogwood tree already had grabbed the attention of visitors passing by on U.S. 259, she said. Photos of the tree on social media have continued the fascination of guests, including two women from Diana who literally came to Steely’s home two weeks ago just as they were dressed.
“They had their pajamas,” Steely said with a laugh. “They said, ‘Oh, we don’t want to get out or anything. We just wanted to come up here and see this tree.’”