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Mother Nature Monday: The Giant Tulip Poplars

Recently a friend expressed her concern that when the elderly Tulip Poplars, the Giants of the upper loop, died, that there would be no more Tulip Poplars in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. The old poplars have a life span of between 400-500 years. The biggest trees on the upper loop are approaching the end of their time of reaching towards the stars.

Happily, there is no need for worry. What we are seeing is a part of their life cycle. A mature Tulip Poplar produces numerous seeds. Most of those seeds are infertile. Each seed helicopters down to land on the ground, where it waits for the perfect circumstances to germinate. That wait might take many years.

One day, one of the giants will fall. Old Age, fire, drought, insect and diseases, air pollution, acid rain and wind events (tornadoes and hurricanes) will cause the giant to lose limbs from its flat-topped crown. Eventually the tree may fall thunderously to the ground, its root ball vertical to the sky.

A 400-meter opening in the canopy will allow enough light to stimulate the waiting seed. The root balls from the fallen giants bring up optimal mineral soil for the small seed to germinate. Many waiting seeds will germinate and start to compete with each other. All will grow quickly towards the open area produced by the fallen tree. Only one will have the perfect combination of growth factors. That seedling will win the race. Its crown of leaves will block the light from nurturing its competitors.

The fallen tree has an important role to play. The trunk becomes what is called a “Nurse Tree”. It nourishes a rich abundance of other plants and animals on the ground level.

Did you know that in the usual Rich Cove and Slope Forest such as the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, Tulip Poplars are uncommon? The reason the numbers of poplars are higher than average in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest appears to be related to the medium elevation and past natural disturbances to the area. In the past 325 years there have been six (6) natural recorded disasters and two (2) unnatural disasters. The unnatural disasters were the Chestnut Blight and the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid. The disasters have occurred about every 30-50 years. Each disaster resulted in a flush of growth for the Tulip Poplars. If you look closely, Tulip Poplars are not the most prevalent tree species in the forest. They are just the ones that people notice because of their size!

As visitors to the Wilderness, we all need to keep in mind that our actions can affect the nature we have come to admire. We don’t want to harm the trees or disturb the natural cycle we are witnessing. Be gentle as you walk along the trails and see what you can learn. The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is the perfect classroom.

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