Monday, October 25, 2010

Big Trees of Joyce Kilmer Forest

The Joyce Kilmer memorial forest, with its massive tulip poplar trees, seems untouched and unspoiled.  But on my recent trip to this forest, I've learned a different story about these trees (for more info-- see Homan 2007):  this forest used to be dominated by even bigger trees and the trees community is even now changing dramatically.  A hundred years ago, the American chestnuts in the Joyce Kilmer forest were massive compared to these tulip poplars-  in fact some were so large that early settlers lived inside the hollowed out trees.  Now, young chestnut trees sprout from the old stumps, but rarely do they live long enough reproduce before they succumb to the chestnut blight, a fungus introduced from Asia.

On our hike though the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness, I spotted a burr on the ground beneath a grove of sprouts that looked to me like chestnut.  Having just read in the guidebook about chestnuts, I excitedly picked it up (ouch! those burrs are sharp!).  It was spiky on the outside and split in four sections, and the seed was no longer inside.  Could it really be from a fruiting American chestnut?  After I returned home, I consulted an excellent online guide to chestnut identification (link here), and this looks like the American chestnut from what I can tell.  The American Chestnut Foundation says that if you find what you think it is an American chestnut, to send them a leaf and twig for identification.  Unfortunately, I didn't take a sample this time.  The group is trying to identify and study American chestnuts in hopes to breed trees resistant to the blight for reintroduction.
Is this burr from an American chestnut?
The second largest trees in the Joyce Kilmer forest, towering almost as tall as the tulip poplars, are the hemlocks.  Sadly, the hemlocks are now mostly only dead snags, killed by the introduced hemlock woolly adelgid.  On our hike, we learned that next week (link here), the trails will be closed and the tops of the dead hemlocks will be blasted with dynamite.  This will prevent the dead trees from falling on hikers, and the idea is that the blasted-off trees will look more natural than if they used chain saws to fell the trees.  I craned my neck looking up at the huge towering hemlocks, thinking how these snags would be gone in just another week.  How many people before me had looked up at this beautiful tree over the years?  What trees will rise up to fill in the gaps in the canopy?
Ill-fated hemlock snag in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

Source: Homan, Tim. 2007. Hiking Trails of the Joyce Kilmer--Slickrock and Cisco Creek Wildernesses. 3rd Edition.

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