Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Square 86: Ancient white cedars

Square 086

The oldest trees in Eastern North America are Eastern white cedars (Thuja occidentalis) that grow on the cliff face of the Niagara Escarpment. The oldest live individual so far identified is located at Lion's Head on Georgian Bay; it has 1141 growth rings. Some dead trees have been found with as many as 1653, and some, with pith wood missing, are estimated to have lived 1800 years.

T. occidentalis is a small tree, normally growing less than 20 metres, but the ancient trees of the escarpment are diminutive, stunted by exposure to the elements. Cedars are a favourite forage plant for deer. The cliff is the only place where they are safe from browsers, forest fires and competition from more vigorous trees.

My plant ecology prof in 1986 was Doug Larson. Imagine my surprise to see him appear a few years later in a Canadian Geographic article about the discovery of these ancient cedars, with which he is credited. The story is recounted in a book I hope to get my hands on soon, The Last Stand: A Journey Through the Ancient Cliff-Face Forest of the Niagara Escarpment by Larson and Peter Kelly. Larson was an energetic teacher, compelled with desire to impart the importance of botany to the masses. I don't know how far his enthusiasm spread, but it has certainly affected my life.

Lorraine Roy's quilt, Burning Bush, which hangs in my living room (see square 43), also reminds me of the flora of the Niagara Escarpment. Sometimes it is not the big, impressive things that are most enduring.

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