This Week's Podcast: Nature Strikes Again
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During the floods of 2011, two old tall trees drowned. One was a Colorado blue spruce and the other was a Canadian hemlock. Many years earlier, before we started to make the garden, John Trexler, the former Director of Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Mass, visited the property. He suggested we take the blue spruce down. That was good advice, which I rejected. I have a hard time killing a big tree, or any plant. Frankly, that is not always good gardening. The tree was already stressed and had a double leader – two main trunks at the top -- a condition that often leads to splitting in ice or snowstorms. In fact, the taller of the two leaders did tear off from the tree in a freak heavy snowstorm in 1998.
The hemlock had survived an attack of wooly adelgids when that insect pest made it through the area, but it continued to decline, I suspect due in part due to the extra hot summers of the last few years. Having its roots underwater for four days during Tropical Storm Lee finished it off.
Now the old trees are gone – taken down by professional arborists. The old spruce fell right along the path without damaging any plantings or nearby trees (above). I haven’t checked the spruce, but I counted 75 growth rings on the hemlock’s stump – 75 years.
While John was here, he also identified a cluster of tall sets of twin mystery conifers. They were Chamaecyparis pisifera, Japanese false cypress. I didn’t recognize them because this species is only sold as selections: mounding dwarfs, golden weeping varieties, etc., and rarely as the straight species. The trees here were about 70-feet-tall until they lost their top 15 feet in an ice storm. But they recovered and were doing nicely – until last week.
I returned from lecturing in New England to discover that the beloved Chamaecyparis had been attacked in my absence – by a pileated woodpecker. When hammering into soft wood, these birds use their long necks to pull back from the tree, then strike with their bills. The sound is a loud and deep thunk, and large chips of wood collect on the ground below. The evidence is clear. The reason is not. The woodpecker usually drills into dead trees looking for bugs or carpenter ants (its favorite food). The trees here seem healthy. Sometimes a healthy-looking tree can have a rotten core, but not these trees. The heartwood is as hard as iron. Could there have been insects or grubs inside? Was this some kind of attempt to make nests, or a mating ritual? Why did the bird ignore the delicious opportunities posed by the nearby dead trees and make holes close to the ground in the living ones?
The Pileated Woodpecker is one of the biggest, most striking forest birds. It is black and white striped with a scarlet crest (John James Audobon’s rendering, above, right). The birds make unmistakable rectangular excavations with triangular points at the top and bottom (holes in my tree, above, left).
We’ll see in time what happens to the tree. Who knows? Another question: will the trees survive? Stay tuned.