Trees Live to Tell Their Story
Woah what happened here?
Looks like a tree had been growing here for a hundred years or so and then crashed down across Jones Falls Trail. The fresh chainsaw cuts suggest that it has fallen recently, yet this tree has been dead for a long time. It must’ve been injured or diseased when the heart of its trunk began to rot from the inside out. It appears to have been good habitat for bats and cavity nesting birds and mammals, and now as it decays, becomes habitat for chipmunks, wood eating insects, and fungi. Visible evidence shows a wood pecker’s angular pecks at the decaying wood to get at the food stuffs of live insects. It’s bark is somewhat intact in a few places, but this veteran was mostly or completely dead when it came tumbling down.
Here’s a picture taken by a local tree enthusiast less than 24hours after it fell on April 4th, 2016.
a few hundred feet later…
What is the story with that circular grove of old trees over there? Let’s go look closer…
Wow! You would need the two of us to join our hands together to completely hug this tree. The dark cinnamon coloration of their bark stands out within a stand of tall-narrow light grey Tulip poles. This is a large tree for a Sassafras. The older oaks nearby are much larger, but it’s still unique to see an old grove of Sassafras specimen this large.
A story retold by Joseph Bruchac, a native writer, talks about how the Sassafras tree came to creation:
There once was a boy named Sassafras who fell madly in love with a girl. But the girl didn’t love him back. So he went to the medicine man and said “oh medicine man please help me get this girl to notice me” and the medicine man gives him a potion and says “drink this when you go to bed and when you wake up you will have something so special that she will have to notice you.” So sassafras takes the potion and goes to bed and when he wakes up he has a second thumb growing out of the other side of his hand. Sassafras looked at his hands and thought wow this is really cool I bet she will love me now! So he went out into the village, but instead of being amazed all the villagers laughed at him. And even the girl he loved laughed. So he went back to the medicine man and said “oh medicine man please help me get this girl to notice me” and the medicine man gives him a potion and says “drink this when you go to bed and when you wake up you will have something so special that she will have to notice you.” So Sassafras takes the potion and goes to bed and when he wakes up he has a no thumbs. And sassafras looked at his hands and thought wow this is really cool I bet she will love me now! So he went out into the village, but instead of being amazed all the villagers laughed at him. And even the girl he loved laughed. So he went back to the medicine man and said “oh medicine man please help me none of your potions have worked.” And the medicine man says ” I’m sorry Sassafras I don’t have anything else for you.”and so Sassafras goes off into the forest and cries beneath the trees and he dies of a broken heart. A few days later the villagers say “hey where’s sassafras I haven’t seen him in a while?” So they go into the woods to look for him but they can’t find him anywhere. Finally they give up and they look at the trees above them. And there in the middle of the forest is a little sapling, and it has three kinds of leaves, it has leaves with one thumb, leaves with two thumbs, and leaves with no thumbs.
And the villagers all exclaimed “there that’s what happened to Sassafras” and the girl Sassafras loved took care of the sapling until it grew as big and tall as the other trees in the forest.
Perhaps the moral of the story is either: “be happy with the thumbs you may have”….. or….. “don’t laugh at people or they just might turn into trees!”
Because trees live for many years, we can read this forest landscape by simply looking and imagining what sequence of events might have taken place over time to create what we have in front of us. Was one squirrel busying itself with acorns one Autumn day years ago responsible for this 100 foot tall Oak in front of me today? Was there human intervention? Probably. Do you think there were people who protected or cared for these trees at one time? Were certain types of trees more loved and cared for by people than others? What features on the forest landscape help us interpret the story?
The Sassafras’ lower lateral branches must have naturally pruned themselves off of the main trunk due to shade, as the top of its canopy was still reaching for light and competing for sunlight with its neighbors. This effect resulted in long, straight, and tall trunks before the first main laterals branch out at four stories high. Today we observe this circle of trees tower over many smaller trees nearby, but the physical growth patterns of these Sassafras trees allow us to see that at one time, there were much larger trees towering over the cluster of Sassafras trees. And the Sassafras had to grow straight and tall rather than out and about.
Walk a hundred feet or so to the south and west and look up at the “Wolf” tree with its wide spreading crown shading all the smaller tulip trees below. This tree is a clue to the open field in which it once grew alone. The shape of the space this great Oak occupies gives evidence that it has been the dominant sun collector in that sphere of earth from an early age. The wolf tree may be among other trees today, but it once stood as a lone wolf in a field. With its wide spreading lateral branches, finding light by reaching out, not just up, it contrasts with the thick growth of skinny, pole-like trees around it.
We see at the base of this massive trunk the fallen dead branches that have been colonized by insect populations and pecked at by woodpeckers. Notice the tree’s lower outwardly spreading branches, a clue that this tree may have been standing tall above smaller plants and trees for most of its years.
So wait a minute, what’s with this cluster of Sassafrass trees?
Did someone plant these trees in a circle? Or was there once a large tree in the middle that sprouted seedlings from its roots before it died leaving a circle of new plants? Was there once a whole thicket of seedlings, like Sassafras often grow, and someone went in there and removed most of the stems leaving a circle? What animals or humans had interacted with these trees during their lifetime? Often times the whispered clues of a tree’s story can be difficult to hear, but the plants can teach you if you listen.
So if you want to go visit the grove of Sassafras, follow these simple directions and use the map and photographs on this post.
The map below shows two points of entry you could use to approach this unique grove of trees.
The first optional approach is from Greenspring Ave and Druid Park Drive, head south and up the hill along Greenspring Ave. Turn left onto Crow’s Nest Road and continue past the picnic tables and around the Frisbee Golf Course. Follow the winding road around until you see where the paved Jones Falls Bike path coincides with the main road you are on. Begin to walk along the Jones Falls Trail off to the left of the road. About 200 feet after you pass through the natural gateway of a large fallen tree (pictured at top of post), look for several large dark tree trunks amongst a stand of skinny tall trees.
For a nice walk, begin at the end of Parkdale Avenue in Woodberry and enter the park heading south. Take your first right onto the paved Jones Falls Trail towards a series of switchbacks and railings (5 switchbacks total). Follow this zig-zagging, climbing path up the hill. Turn left at the intersection. Up ahead you will see where the large tree has been cut out of the pathway just where it reaches Crow’s Nest Road. About 200 feet before this tree on the left side is the grove of Sassafras trees.
We hope you get out in the deep woods of Druid Hill or Gwynns Falls or Herring Run during the heat of this summer! A shady sanctuary for people and plants can inspire one to imagine what stories these trees are wanting to tell us. Because after all, trees live to tell a story.
this image was borrowed from the https://www.unitedplantsavers.org/
Do you enjoy treeasure hunts?
For over 25 years, the arborists at Recreation and Parks and the Baltimore City Forestry Board members have been documenting the city’s outstanding individual tree specimen. Since TreeBaltimore launched its online Notable Tree Map last year, we had Urban Resources Intern Jonathan Hao update records and add new notables to our list. If you like treasure hunts, find these trees on the web and visit them in person. Please do so respectfully: many of them are owned and cared for by private property owners, who are helping us protect these treasures. This interactive web map is up and running at www.TreeBaltimore.org/maps/ .
You will see five categories of Notable Trees on this map:
1) City Champion 2) State Champion 3) Unique Species 4) Exemplary Specimen 5) Historic
Champion trees are the largest of their species. Unique Species is an unusual tree not native to Maryland that exhibits good health. Exemplary specimen may be of large stature and excellent health, and may be a source of enjoyment in your neighborhood. This bodacious category is new, and intended to be a useful tool for people deciding what type of trees to plant. Historic trees live on to tell us an important story.
The online Notable Tree Map is waiting for your nominations! Currently, our map could use more locations to further populate those empty spaces. As we all are thinking about where to populate the map with more points, we want to be aware that some areas of the city have little to no recognition. We want anyone in any neighborhood to be able to visit a Notable Tree in their neighborhood. If you are the proud witness of a fine tree growing in Baltimore City, let us know what and where, and we might add it to the map!