Friday, December 7, 2012

A Forgotten Old-Growth Woodlot

The indigenous peoples of primeval west-central Ohio would hardly know what to think of their homeland by the look of the landscape today.  What was once a sprawling, open forest marked with numerous prairie, fen, and thicket openings is now a never-ending sea of agriculture with a sprinkle of leftover, disregarded wooded islands.  These ignored woodlots are all that remains of the formerly forested landscape and barely look anything like their predecessors of yesteryear.  Small, scattered and heavily overgrown with the incredibly invasive Asian bush honeysuckle monocultures and tangles of grapevines, it's a sad sight to see when one pictures what the land must have been like a few centuries prior.  Luckily there are still a few hidden gems out there in-between the corn and soybeans, waiting for someone to take notice and dare to break through the impenetrable honeysuckle exterior and on into its forgotten beauty.

Old-growth woodlot in a sea of corn fields in west-central Ohio

The particular old-growth lot I'd like to share in this post is located in the west-central county of Clark, not too far from where your blogger grew up.  I'd driven past the woods countless times before and always peered in with the unquenchable curiosity of what, if any, big trees could be found within.  A couple falls ago I decided to slip into its depths with my camera and father in tow to have a look-see at what we could find.

Clear cut through the edge of the forest

As we approached the eastern edge of the woodlot it became quite noticeable that someone had clear cut a swath of forest out some time ago.  Unfortunately, this parcel of land is owned by a real estate developer and the clear cut strip and old logging marks spray painted on many of the wood's finest trees pay reminder to its probable fate as a subdivision.  Whether this is near or far in the future I can't say but each time I drive by and see it unchanged I breath a small sigh of relief.  If this slowed economy has had any positive effects, keeping this forest from being logged and developed is one of them.

An enormous white ash (Fraxinus americana) with blogger's father for comparison

After battling through the thick honeysuckle and osage orange perimeter our eyes met the first of this woodlot's ancient leviathans.  I've seen many white ash trees in my day but none have come even close to this forest grown monster.  The single trunk shot straight up over our heads and reached a height approaching 100' tall.  Most of the crown had long ago succumb to decay and wind/storm damage but a few forking branches still allowed it to scrape the heavens at such an impressive height.

Better view of the enormous, single trunk

I wish I had my measuring tape and clinometer with me because this ash certainly deserved to have its dimensions precisely measured.  The diameter was easily over four feet wide, perhaps even approaching five feet from certain angles!  I can't begin to imagine how old this tree may be and hope it continues to hang on for years to come.  Soon enough seeing ash of this size will be as rare American elms of similar proportions due to the emerald ash borer.

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) leaves

The diversity of canopy tree species was quite impressive with a mixture of red and bur oak; shagbark and bitternut hickory; black walnut; basswood; sugar maple; white and blue ash; and beech all mixing together.  I labeled it a mixed oak/hickory forest with shagbark hickory being the most dominant species, as about one of every four trees was one.  

Large shagbark hickory rocketing into the canopy

My father told me stories about him and his dad coming to this very woods in the fall to squirrel hunt decades and decades ago when they knew the neighboring farmer who owned the plot.  The massive amounts of seasonal hickory nuts drew in crowds of red and grey squirrels looking to fatten up for the approaching winter months.  They rarely walked out unsuccessful in their hunt.  He mentioned the forest then was pure and free of any invading honeysuckle and the under story was considerably more open, but that was 40+ years ago and times had unfortunately changed.

A 'straight as an arrow' bur oak topping out at nearly 100' tall

The other most common canopy species outside the shagbark hickories was another heavy nut producer and squirrel favorite: bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa).  Their furrowed and dark barked trunks stood out against the lighter shades of grey from the beech, sugar maple, and ash.  Most of the specimens like the one pictured above had faint markings from a previous timber cruising crew that had undoubtedly found them as impressive as us, albeit for the 'wrong' reasons.

Old-growth bur oak climbing high into the canopy

Straight trunks with a slow taper and branches only beginning to appear at 40-50 feet up made for some very beautiful trees.  Each time I see a time-tested tree that has withstood decades, even centuries of harsh weather and climate conditions makes me thank mother nature for her gift and say a silent prayer to the wind that long may they avoid man's chainsaw and greedy wallets.  Trees like this aren't grown overnight and take a long, long time to replace.

Cluster of nice sized bur oaks

The deep, rich mesic soil with centuries of decomposed leaf litter made for excellent growing conditions and allowed these trees to attain such girth and lofty heights.  I plan to revisit this winter for a better, less restricted look at the forest now that all the leaves are off the trees.  I'll be sure to bring my measuring tools this time around as I'm curious just how tall some of these oaks and hickories top out at.  Even a spring visit should be in store to see if any display of wildflower ephemerals coincides with the new growing season.

A beauty of a black walnut (Juglans nigra) and something you rarely see today

Now this is something you just don't see in today's forests anymore.  This black walnut was one of a dozen or so scattered throughout the lot with straight, slightly tapering trunks that would have any logger drooling in envy.  Black walnut specimens like this all met their sawmill fates decades ago for their very valuable wood.  The one pictured here topped out at 80-90' tall with its first blemish being a fork nearly 50' up.

Massive red oak (Quercus rubra) with an equally big bur oak to the back right

The bur oaks weren't the only impressive members of the Quercus genus to grace the ever-yellowing canopy.  Red oak (Q. rubra) trees exceeding three feet in diameter weren't too uncommon but none could challenge this particular behemoth.  I love the gradual widening of the root flare in these forest-grown oaks, it really adds some character to their mighty stature.  The large tree to the back right is another example of the forest's impressive bur oaks.

The massive red oak hardly tapering as it shoots into the canopy

This is one of those trees whose height I'd really like to measure; I have a hunch it tops 100'.  The slow taper of its central column has a huge volume of wood packed into the sky and would provide quite a bit of lumber in the event of its human-caused felling.  I'm jealous of the birds and squirrels who can enjoy the views from the canopy of such a mighty being.  

Large musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana) in the under story

It wasn't just the canopy tree's dimensions that consistently impressed me; some of the under story species did as well.  Your blogger's father stands next to one of the grand examples of musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana) to be found within the woods.  Other frequent under story species included Ohio buckeye, ironwood, pawpaw, hawthorn spp., blackhaw, redbud, and spicebush.  Now, I know you're wondering about that massive tree in the background and no worries, I've saved the best for last.

An truly monstrous bur oak and the largest tree found in the forest.

Near the margins of the field lies the champion of the forest; the largest and most impressive of all its denizens.  What makes this bur oak so impressive is the clear signs of being an open-growth tree instead of forest-grown like the rest of the trees featured.  The low-hanging branches and rounded crown all point to this specimen spending a majority of its time growing in the open and stretching out its branches to catch all the sunlight it could.  

Zoomed in shot of my father and the behemoth bur oak

I have no idea how old this bur oak truly is but I wouldn't hesitate to guess at least 200-250 years old, if not more.  I suspect it was already of decent size when the land was cleared a couple centuries ago; which allowed it to relish in the endless sunshine for decades to come.  Looking at Ohio's champion bur oak measurements I already know this one doesn't compare but would still someday like to take precise measurements of its circumference, height, and spread to see how well it does stack up to our state's champs.

Walking through the corn after an excellent time in the old woods

As we walked back to the road through the corn field I glanced back at the wood lot a number of times and thought this shot really captured the stature of the monarch bur oak.  You can see its still green-leaved canopy rising up above the yellow and oranges of the shorter, but still impressive surrounding trees.  I'm sure there are more exciting big trees and discoveries to be made in this old-growth wood lot and I hope to return in the near future to see what else I can uncover.  People think they have to go far and wide to find appreciable beauty in the flat and boring west-central portion of the state but sometimes all you have to do is find a unsuspecting woodlot and step on inside its living cathedral of trees...