Exploring Notable and Legacy Trees

Exploring Notable and Legacy Trees

Many of us have a deep fascination and connection with trees that seems imprinted within our genetic code. The first hominids to venture on two legs climbed down from trees yet maintained their arboreal residences. The safety of the upper branches and the readily available source of nuts and fruit provided protection and sustenance for our most ancient ancestors. Once-upon-a-time we were forest and woodland dwellers. Now, we find peace and a sense of well-being when in the presence of trees.

In previous columns I have written about some of the magnificent and large trees I have encountered during my forest rambles here in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor, and today we explore the value of these ancient giants. There are two types of old trees I have encountered in both my woods wanderings and research — notable trees and legacy trees and both are important to the environment.

There are species of trees considered notable trees for their remarkable size and age. These notable trees are typically massive in girth and stand tall above other surrounding trees. Many are known to us because they are visible in parks or on private lands. Then there are legacy trees, ancient hulks, typically surrounded by younger trees and found in deeper forests and woods. They live on and their legacy is the life they bestow to a multitude of other trees and life forms, much like a bequest or legacy from an ancestor to the present generation.

The first time I encountered a notable tree here in The Last Green Valley was in Franklin while visiting property owned for many generations by the Ayer family. I was there to meet Steve Ayer about an astronomy program he was hosting on a hillside field on his family lands. There in the middle of the field was a towering tree with a wide spreading crown and massive girth. He called it a pepperidge tree, said it was hundreds of years old and had been added to the state’s list of Notable Trees of Connecticut — a list of more than 4,000 massive trees that have been examined and recorded by the Notable Trees Project.

The Ayer tree is in fact a black gum tree, Nyssa sylvatica, and is sometimes referred to as a pepperidge tree. The Ayer family tree in Franklin is a Connecticut Champion, the largest of its species in the state and stands 90 feet tall, 156 inches in circumference with an average spread of 75 feet.

The Notable Trees Project collects and distributes information about Connecticut’s largest and most historic trees, both native and introduced. By educating citizens, the Notable Trees Project works to preserve the state’s natural heritage. Established in 1985, it is a volunteer enterprise sponsored by the Connecticut Botanical Society, the Connecticut College Arboretum and the Connecticut Urban Forest Council. A computer database is maintained at the Connecticut College Arboretum and provides statistics for 4,452 individual trees in the state, including size, location, ownership and condition.

You can find more information and an index of all the Notable Trees of Connecticut on their website at: http://oak.conncoll.edu:8080/notabletrees/index.jsp

While notable trees may be known to us via the Notable Trees database, legacy trees can be a bit harder to find, but should be appreciated not just for their size, but also for the critical role they play in our forest ecosystem.

One of my favorite magazines is “Northern Woodlands,” a publication of the Center for Northern Woodlands Education. A recent article by Ethan Tapper, “The Importance of Legacy Trees,” caught my eye. He is the Chittenden County forester for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, and here are some of the key points he makes about the value of these ancient legacy trees.

“Legacy trees are trees of an older generation that persist in a younger forest. The ecological benefits of legacy trees are many. Their complex bark provides habitat for mosses and lichens, invertebrates, and bark-foraging birds such as nuthatches and brown creepers. Massive canopies produce huge amounts of mast as well as unique foraging, nesting, and denning opportunities for an array of birds, mammals, and invertebrates. Below the ground, old trees provide complex habitats in the rhizosphere – the world of roots – and are an important part of the forest’s mycorrhizal networks.”

“Old trees often straddle life and death, retaining a live canopy while other parts of them decline and decay. As these trees senesce, they provide additional habitats for the community of decomposers – invertebrates, fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms – critical to soil formation and foundational to forest ecology. Woodpeckers forage in their rotting wood, creating cavities that provide still more nesting and denning sites for a variety of birds and mammals.”

The full article can be found at: https://northernwoodlands.org/issues/issue

If you’ve had the opportunity to hike through some of our region’s large swaths of state forests such as the Natchaug, Nipmuck or Pachaug forests, you have likely encountered a legacy tree still alive but also slowly moldering away into the soil, bequeathing life itself to countless other plants and creatures.

I have spent years observing one such legacy tree in the forest surrounding my grandparent’s old farm in New Hampshire. The “mother beech,” as I call it, is well over 100-years-old and rooted deeply on an east-facing hill. I first encountered it with my dad about 50 years ago as we hiked the property with our forester. The forester pointed out many other smaller beech trees dotting that hillside, the obvious progeny of the old beech tree. He indicated he would not mark that massive old beech for harvesting as it was too valuable as a seed tree.

Over the years I made a point to visit the mother beech while hiking the forest. It had developed a cavity that one could almost step inside. Though the middle of the tree had mostly rotted away, and the center leader had toppled over, it still had side branches sprouting bright green leaves each spring. Leaves are the working engine of a tree, photosynthesizing sunlight into sugars that feed the tree and give it life. Today that mother beech is but a decomposing black hulk, sinking slowly into the rocky New Hampshire soil. There are no more leaves, but it’s crumbling remains feed the forest floor and support life in the complex forest ecosystem.

The cycle of life is all around us, to be witnessed monthly and every season of each passing year. Some of our region’s wildlife can live for decades with eagles pushing 30 years and snapping turtles 40 plus years. Smaller bird species and most amphibians live only 3 or more short years, and most insects but a few months transitioning from newly laid egg to voracious larva, to breeding adult and eventual demise. Through it all, for hundreds of years, notable trees and legacy trees stand in place bearing witness to the inescapable cycle of life.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. I hope you’ll join me and together let us enjoy it, care for it, and pass it on. Let us emulate our oldest trees, beholding and supporting the vital natural and cultural resources that make this region so very special.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at 860-774-3300 or by email at bill@tlgv.org

Exploring The Last Green Valley, Saturday, August 21, 2022

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the following article.  The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.





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