Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tree Down

I found a tree that came down in the woods, probably during a wind storm this spring. It’s not uncommon for a tree to fall. The surprising thing is that it didn’t fall across a fence or a trail.

The soil on these limestone ridge tops is not the best for growing trees. Limestone bedrock is very near the surface and does not allow roots to form a deep anchorage. As seen in this photo, the roots grow laterally and form a fibrous mat on top of the rock. When the soil is saturated and the wind blows, trees are likely to fall.

Examples of this shallow rootedness are found throughout the woods. Shallow soil is not the only culprit. Decades ago, cattle used to graze freely through these woods. The grazing cattle caused soil compaction and root damage, weakening the trees and allowing access for insects and disease.

Every time a tree falls, a hole opens in the canopy. The hole allows in sunlight and a flush of young trees will compete to claim the available space.

This is what will most likely win the race. This is a seedling Sugar Maple, which happens to be the same species as the one that fell. Sugar Maples will grow faster and with less sunlight than most other tree species. As this cycle continues through the woods, the Sugar Maple will increase its presence to the detriment of the Oaks and Hickories.

The years of grazing eliminated the understory of small trees that would be found in a healthy woodland. As more trees fall, the understory gradually returns and provides a more diversified habitat for woodland nesting birds.

This is what the area will probably look like in another ten years, if the young trees are not browsed down by the deer. You can see where the Whitetail Deer have eaten the lower leaves and twigs from these Sugar Maples, causing a browse line.

The tree that fell isn’t dead. There is still enough soil on the root ball and enough roots in the ground to maintain the tree. From its new position, the tree grows towards the hole it once occupied. It won’t live more than a couple more years. As we move into summer, the root mass will dry completely and the few roots still in the ground won’t be able to supply the moisture necessary to maintain the leaves. The leaves will drop early and the cycle will repeat itself next year, but the tree will die and leave, as a monument to the its last efforts, strangely twisted branches formed by a vain attempt to reach the sunlight.

The woodland trees of Blue Jay Barrens are not known for their straightness. Half the woodland pictures I take look as though I can’t hold a camera straight. You can see by the bend of these tree trunks that they were at one time tipped from the vertical and did their best to redirect their growth upward. Eventually their weight will cause them to also come crashing down.

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