Saturday, August 8, 2009

Black Tupelo: Ancient Resident of the North Woods

Black Tupelo. That name evokes images of the Deep South, where Black Tupelo trees share gator-infested swamps with Bald Cypress and Loblolly Pine. So what the heck are they doing up here on the edge of the Adirondacks, sharing the Hudson River banks with White Birch and Swamp White Oak? That’s not the first question I asked myself upon finding this tree about 15 years ago. My first question was: “What the heck is this?” In all my years of wandering the woods and paddling the waterways of both Michigan and northern New York, I had never come across a tree quite like it. But here it was — glossy green in summer, radiant red by early fall – and whole bunches of them were growing in a marshy area of the Hudson near Glens Falls. Its Latin name (I later learned) is Nyssa sylvatica, which means “water nymph of the woods.” I can’t imagine a more appropriate name, for, in my desire to know this tree, it became like some kind of spirit beckoning me ever deeper into the woods. I trace my present fascination with all that grows to my first encounters with that beautiful tree.

I became a bit obsessed by the subject, asking several so-called naturalists what they might know about Black Tupelo. Not much, it seemed, for time and time again I was told that it did not grow around here. The ones I had found, they said, must have escaped from cultivation. So imagine my excitement (maybe ten years ago) when I saw a notice that the Adirondack Mountain Club was hosting a lecture by a forestry Ph.D. student named Neil Pederson and the topic was Black Tupelos. Pederson did acknowledge that tupelos typically would not be found this far north or this far inland. But then he explained that the low-lying nature of the Hudson River/Champlain Valley allowed for the penetration of moist, warm air, creating a nearly uniform climate farther inland than would normally be expected. And he showed us numerous weather-pattern and plant-distribution maps to prove it. Hah! Told you so!

At that same lecture I learned that Pederson had taken core samples of Black Tupelos growing in Lincoln Mountain State Forest in Greenfield, N.Y., just south of Corinth. That’s right next door, almost, to my home in Saratoga Springs. Here in a state-protected unspoiled swamp, about 30 specimens had grown to a very old age. How old? Well, Pederson’s samples indicated that at least one of these ancient trees was 554 years old. Five Hundred and Fifty-four years! According to his calculations, that tree first sprouted in 1448. That’s 44 years before Columbus set sail. I guess those trees had not escaped from cultivation.

For years I tried to find a way to visit those trees. I obtained a topographical map of the area, but was warned that the swamp was almost impenetrable and of course there were no trails or markers and I was sure to get lost. Then just last winter I met a man who not only knew all about those trees, he also lived on the edge of the swamp where they grow, and knew how to get to them. Vince Walsh is a nature educator, a New York State licensed guide, and owner of Kawing Crow Awareness Center in Greenfield, his property abutting that Lincoln Mountain State Forest. Vince claims that these tupelo trees have been sampled again in the years since Pederson’s findings, and this time the samples indicate some trees are more than 800 years old. Just imagine! If what Vince told me is true, then these trees began their lives at the time the Crusades were going on across the Atlantic. But even at “only” 554 years, that tree would be the oldest one in all of New York State.

Vince took me to see those trees this past March, while ice still covered the frozen muck and we could make our way without sinking up to our knees. It’s hard to describe what I felt gazing up the huge trunks to the gnarled twisted branches high overhead. I’ve actually seen taller and bigger trees (these tupelos are around 70 feet high, maybe 36 inches across at shoulder height), but these trees exuded a presence. We just sat in silence among them for a long, long while. What had they witnessed over the span of 800 years? And how had they escaped the logger’s ax? Vince told me these trees hollow out from the top as they age, making such ancient trees as these unsuitable for ships’ masts or building lumber. By the time Europeans would have discovered them, they already would have been at least 300 years old.

Unfortunately, what age or loggers didn’t bring down, the beavers may. Back in that Greenfield swamp, we found one ancient tree that beavers had girdled – certain death in just a short time for that one. And along the Hudson River at Moreau, in one swampy spot where dozens grow, every single one has the bark gnawed off all the way around, to a height of about three feet. It’s really a mystery to me why the beavers do this. They haven’t toppled a single one to get at the treetop branches. Is the heartwood too hard for even a beaver’s teeth? Or are they deliberately killing these trees so that trees they prefer will take their place? I know that beavers are very smart and capable of strategizing. Are they actually capable of such deliberate dendrocide?

So it could be the days are numbered for “my” Black Tupelos, the ones along the Hudson I visit in every season, as if in pilgrimage to my totem tree. A few here and there remain undamaged, so I’ve asked the naturalists at Moreau Lake State Park to devise some way to protect them. What a loss it would be to not find that vivid glossy green in summer, that radiant red in the fall! These trees start to redden many weeks earlier than others, starting as early as now. Often, only half of its leaves turn color at a time, so that red and green leaves may populate the same branches at the same time. Male and female flowers occur on separate trees, and only the female trees bear the blue-black fruits that are craved by many kinds of birds, especially woodpeckers and thrushes. The fruits should be ripe by late September, early October, when the trees are as fully ablaze as the one in the photo above. I urge you to find a way to see these trees. As we now know, they’ve thrived around here for a very, very long time. But maybe not forever.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.



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