Sunday, November 24, 2013

Some of our Oldest Trees

Unfortunately there is no true example of an old growth forest anywhere that I know of in Central New York. In fact there are precious few examples of it in the entire Northeast US. What we do have are some small isolated patches of old growth, which most often consists of just a few trees that somehow escaped 2 centuries worth of ax-men. In most cases a remnant of old growth (or mature growth) will be comprised of a single tree or a small group which are growing on or near the border of 2 properties. Land owners on either side didn't chop down these trees because they couldn't be sure who really owned them or where the cut trees might fall. 
The oldest tree at the nature preserve is an Eastern Hemlock
The Hemlock lost its top in a storm a few years back, but it still hangs on to life
Old growth usually refers to trees that were standing prior to the colonial period, which for our part of the country would be the late 18th Century. I believe that we only have one tree at the nature preserve that fits that strict criteria. It's an Eastern Hemlock and it's estimated to be about 300 years old. Lately this guy really looks his age. About 4 years ago a storm took off his top but somehow he has managed to survive with only a few leafed out branches. This tree is very close to the former border of the property and stands 20 feet below the top of a gorge. There are a handful of other old trees along the same ridge, but all of them are post settlement and date back only 150 years or so. Again these were only spared because of a serendipitous placement on the border. 
Sharing the ridge with the old hemlock is a 150 year-old Sugar Maple
This very old Sugar Maple is more than half gone but somehow it still clings to life
When Spring Farm acquired some adjacent lands we also acquired a number of old trees that grew close to those old borders. One of the giants is a pretty spectacular Sugar Maple which is estimated to be just over  200 years old, but even it is obviously not original old growth. The shape of the tree, the fact that its trunk begins branching out so low to the ground tells us that in its formative years it grew along side a cleared area. Its low branches were encouraged by plentiful amounts of light reaching the tree's leaves. Had it been a forest tree, like old growth would necessarily have been, it would've had neighboring trees competing for light and so it too would have produced a tall trunk that branched out closer to the tree canopy. 
Our oldest living Sugar maple is about 200 years old, but is not technically "Old Growth"
Another giant Sugar Maple still survives at what was once a field border
A few other Maples that are nearly that old grow roughly in line with it and extend along what was once a field border. Many of these trees were likely spared the axe because they were sap producers. Many farm families produced their own maple syrup in those bygone days and their "sugar bush" was as important to maintain as their apple orchards. No other naturally occurring tree species found in at our preserve are as old as that Maple or the Hemlock with the possible exception of an American Beech Tree. Perhaps a few of our older beech trees were spared because of their ability to produce beech nuts. But as is the case with the other trees, the oldest ones tend to be on the historical border of the property. The fact that they still exist is due more to their location as apposed to their perceived usefulness. 
Our oldest American Beech shows scars from being shot and from Beech Bark Disease
Another old Beech Tree near a former border line is about 150 years old

Carved initials dated June 15, 1928 are no longer legible on this now dead beech tree
Our oldest beech tree on the property is probably between 175 and 200 years old. Not bad for a tree that has a life expectancy of around 300 years. Its massive trunk shows some scarring from being shot with a shotgun probably over 30 years ago. More recent pock mark type scarring is a symptom of Beech Bark Disease which is currently running ramped in our forest and is threatening the beech with regional extinction. 

A strong wind storm took down this giant maple in 2011 
One of the most impressive stands of mature trees in the area was destroyed by that 2011 storm
The  life expectancy for Sugar Maple is also around 300 years, but it 's rare to come across examples of trees that are even close to that age. Baring being cut or damaged by logging, many mature trees will have their lives cut short by storms, disease and lightning strikes. Few will escape rot caused by fungi which infiltrate the tree's bark and outer layers and consumes the heartwood. This loss of trunk mass makes the tree far more susceptible to blow downs. On the property there may only be 2 Sugar Maples over 125 years old that show no obvious sign of heart rot.
A lightning strike demolished this Hemlock Tree
A wind storm broke this old American Basswood like it was a matchstick
More old trees crowded around a former border area
Another 2 century old Sugar Maple located well south of our preserve
Interestingly, the forest is not the place to look for the oldest trees. Often the best specimens of large mature trees are found in the yards of city and suburban residences. Cemeteries can also be good places to seek out the oldest trees. These locations have the good fortune of not being on the logger's radar.
This part of our forest is maturing nicely but is still 100 years younger than true old growth

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