By D.C. Rohleder
As I sit on a West-facing porch on a humid mid-July morning drinking strong black coffee, my attention is drawn to an ailing old Friend. This Friend has been a rock for me and others in the 20+ years I have lived here – providing entertainment, respite, and nourishment for myself and numerous species of wildlife. No other organism on my property is more magnanimous.
The Friend is a wood’s-edge survivor that fortunately was allowed to grow unmolested between a little parking spot and a towering 200+ year-old white pine that dominates my 3 acres. The old pine has allowed it to grow in its understory, allowing it to live peacefully within some of its branches for what seems to be mutual benefit, or perhaps simply friendship. The pine shields my Friend from heavy winter snows that would likely break her back or limbs – while I can’t guess what my Friend does for the pine. Perhaps its roots help keep the pine from tipping over in heavy S winds!
My Friend always displays one of the first signs of Spring on my property, providing beautiful white blossoms in the often dreary early Spring gloom. This year and last, she survived defoliation attempts by Spongy Moth caterpillars that were more interested in terrifying my oaks. But frequent drought, caterpillars, and age are taking their toll on her.
My Friend’s most obvious contribution to the ecology of my property is her typically abundant fruit. In July, she produces small, round, red berries that, if left alone, become very sweet, yet tart, purple gems. Rarely do I get to sample them because the wildlife know when they are coming and descend on the tree in hordes. The ubiquitous squirrels make the first few raids when most critters, including myself, consider the fruit inedible. But the increasingly red berries begin to attract Robin’s, Bluebirds, Titmice, Waxwings, Woodpeckers, Catbirds, Veerys, Hermit Thrushes, and anything else that can fit a berry down their gullet. This year in particular I have been unable to sample any fruit because none have reached ripeness within easy reach of my short arms before being picked off by an enterprising critter.
But my Friend is in trouble. As she nears the end of her natural days, I am noticing the top third of the tree has become defoliated and the berries are hanging brown husks. About two-thirds of the way up her trunk, I see a stream of her life-blood streaming down the bark. This essential sap was unleashed by a family of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers that have also been bloodletting a nearby Mountain Ash. They don’t seem to have girdled the ashes yet – nor do I see signs of serious girdling on my Friend, but I believe they may have introduced a pathogen that she is too frail to combat. I read recently that Sapsuckers seem to have the ability to determine trees that are under stress and target them because the stressors often trigger an increase in sap/sugar production. But that is another story…
So today, I am left to ponder the fate of this ecological and psychological keystone on my little property. My Friend, an American Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), may or may not outlive me. She has a straggly sister about 30 feet away in the wood’s edge that is not nearly as prolific. She lacks the protection of the big pine, and must compete for sun with the now-brutalized Oaks. If the Oaks do not survive the caterpillar onslaught, it may give this Serviceberry a step up. I have been unsuccessful in planting young Serviceberries – they just don’t thrive. Perhaps I need to keep trying.
As a juvenile Robin removes the last of this season’s crop from my Friend, I am left to ponder the significance of her eventual death – both to the wildlife and to me.
Note: Three squirrels (hanging fruit) in the photo.
D.C. Rohleder lives in Port Kent