Monday, February 6, 2012

Hidden Treasure in a Mountain Swamp

Who would have known they were there, hidden away for ages, those big old Black Tupelos in a swamp on the top of a mountain?  Only someone who knows the Palmertown Mountains of Moreau Lake State Park like the back of her hand, that's who.  Someone like my friend Laurie, who led me up into the mountains yesterday so that I could lay my eyes on these trees myself.

Laurie counts these mountains and woods as her own backyard and has been hiking, skiing, and snowshoeing here for years and years, both on and off the trails.  But even she was surprised when she came upon these towering trees in a hidden swamp, recognizing right away they were something special.  She also knows that I have a special fondness for Black Tupelos and was quick to report her find to me and offer to take me to see them.  So off we went together, along with Laurie's teenaged daughter Johanna, on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon.  We followed a well-marked trail for a mile or so, until we came to the spot where Laurie knew we should leave the trail and follow a ridge downhill to a swamp that lies in a hollow of the mountain.

Laurie and Johanna led the way, assuring me that I wouldn't get lost if I just followed the ridge.

We soon came to a swampy area, which, lucky for us, was sufficiently frozen over to allow for easy exploring.

Mats of sphagnum moss lay thick around the edges of ice-covered pools.

In many of these pools, the ice had formed lovely patterns as it froze.  And refroze and refroze and refroze.

We found a number of baby Black Spruces, typical occupants, along with the sphagnum, of boggy sites.

And there they were,  the Black Tupelos, tall and straight, towering over their neighboring trees in the swamp.  Not as monumental as some 800-year-old tupelos I have visited in a lowland swamp nearby, but much larger than the tupelos I have seen growing along the Hudson River at Moreau.  We measured the trunks of two of them at shoulder height and determined that they were about six feet around. To determine their age, they would have to be core-sampled.  It sure would be interesting to know how old they really are.

Here's a view looking up toward the crown, revealing the horizontal branching and distinctive twigginess so typical of this species.

Also typical of tupelos of this size is the way the bark grows:  deeply furrowed on one side, but relatively smooth on the other.

We even found some leaves and seeds, which provide further evidence for this tree's identification.

So, what is it about this tree (Nyssa sylvatica is its Latin name) that I would consider it a treasure?  Certainly, lumbermen have no use for it, with its interlacing fibers that make it impossible to split and prone to warping.  For this very reason, no doubt, this tree was allowed to stand through the centuries while all others around it were lumbered again and again, so that by now the oldest stands of living timber in the northeast are likely to be Black Tupelo.  And that's very interesting.  It's also a beautiful tree, with glossy green leaves that turn a spectacular cranberry red each autumn, as well as a rather uncommon tree for this part of the world.  Considered more of a coastal species, Black Tupelos survive in the Hudson/Champlain Valley because of a moderating effect those bodies of water have on the regional climate.  So this tree is not seen around here all that often.  I had never seen its like when I first encountered it while paddling the Hudson some 15-20 years ago, and my desire to discover its identity inspired my desire to then learn the name of everything that grows along the river.  And then, everything that grows, everywhere!

So that's why I felt it was worth the effort to climb up a mountain and push through a swamp to see another stand of these amazing trees -- especially ones as old and large as those we found up there.  Thanks, Laurie, for sharing your find with me.  What a treasure!


catharus said...

Yes, that's fantastic! Always particularly rewarding with favorite species! That's very interesting about how the bark grows so different on opposite sides of the trunk. Do you know of any explanation?

Michael Asbell said...

This is a very nice blog. I'm glad I've discovered you. I started my own just a couple weeks ago. We'll see how it goes.

Carolyn H said...

What a great walk! That's a tree I've never seen, as far as I know.

Ellen Rathbone said...

Great find. These trees certainly are appearing to be more common around your area than previously thought, eh?

hikeagiant2 said...

Oh the stories they could tell! really wonderful -