by Jim Atwater

Sweet Gum

It is common knowledge that the temperate zone rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, along with the giant sequoia and coast redwood of California, contain not only the tallest trees on the earth, but those of the greatest volume and weight. All of these great trees are conifers (or gymnosperms) and dwarf the California white oak, the largest deciduous broadleaf tree indigenous to the region. While the western half of the country was dominated by these evergreens, what was going on east of the Mississippi River?

Prior to the arrival of the white man, eastern North America was populated with the mightiest temperate zone broadleaf deciduous forest on earth. Few outstanding examples survived as the east coast was settled, and population expansion brought intensive lumbering, expanding farming and the eventual introduction of nonnative pathogens which obliterated dominant species like the American chestnut and white elm. Still, some remnants of this past remain.

The loftiest deciduous tree growing in the east was the yellow poplar or tulip tree, occasionally reaching up to 200′ with trunk diameters of 12′. There were two other species, the Shumard oak and the sweetgum tree, that may have reached this height, but sported more modest trunk diameters.

The tulip tree was a favorite of the founding fathers. There is a splendid specimen growing today at Mt. Vernon planted by George Washington, and two of the remaining five trees planted by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello are tulip trees. The current national champion is located in Bedford, Virginia, with a 10′ diameter trunk, 111′ height and crown spread of 125′.

Baby Tuliptree

Although not as tall, the American sycamore is the largest broadleaf tree of our eastern forests. Reliable records have reported on trunks over 15′ in diameter with heights up to 175′. A tree in Ohio, when last measured 30 years ago, had a 15.4′ trunk diameter and height of 130′. It and its many other large companions are now gone, with the current national champion located in Montgomery County, Kentucky, with a mere 11.5′ trunk diameter and 85′ height.

Many folks felt that the American elm was the most beautiful tree native to the east, but thanks to the Dutch elm disease very few now remain. The present champions (actually co-champions, in Tennessee and Virginia) sport diameters of 7.4′ and heights of 122′. Historically, the granddaddy of American elms grew south of Rochester along the Genesee River at the Markham Farm two miles north of Avon, NY. Probably over 300 years old, it finally succumbed to spring flooding at the end of the 19th century. It had a 15.5′ bole diameter at 4.5′ above ground. Its height was never officially recorded, but references in contemporary documents stated that at noon the shadow cast by its crown covered an entire acre.

White Pine

In spite of the fact that broadleaf trees tended to dominate the landscape in the east, the emperor of the forest just as in the west was a conifer-the eastern white pine. Trees 12′ in diameter and 200′ tall were common and coveted by British, and later, colonial, shipbuilders for masts for their warships and legendary China clipper ships during the age of sail. Dartmouth College at one time had a white pine on its campus that was 240′ tall. But all white pines of great size are gone. The largest now standing is near Morrill, Maine, with a diameter of 6′ and height of 125′.

But back to large broadleaf trees in the east. It has been popularly assumed that the era of intensive lumbering left little virgin forest undisturbed. It now turns out that there are a number of areas, albeit small, that escaped the saw and axe due to inaccessibility. Sponsored by the Citizens Campaign for the Environment and the Niagara Frontier Botanical Society, ambitious efforts are underway to locate and explore hitherto unknown areas that have remained untouched by the advance of civilization. One result of this survey has been the discovery of a virgin old-growth forest in the Zoar Valley Canyon south of Buffalo, just east of the town of Sycamore Gowanda. Although hemlock dominates an area of 400 acres of primordial woods, there are numerous ancient deciduous trees including a 156′ tulip tree, a 154′ sycamore, along with nine other species, six of which are the tallest of their kind in the northeast, two more the tallest in New York State, and an American basswood believed to be the tallest in the world at 128′.

Although it is open to the public, a visit to the old-growth area of the Zoar Canyon is not to be taken on casually. It is reachable only on foot and can be wet, depending upon the weather and the season. The canyon is seven miles in length and 415′ deep, the second deepest in western New York. If you are looking for waterfalls, it has twenty, some as tall as 180′. “It is tied with Letchworth State Park as the wildest, most rugged area in western New York,” according to its discoverers.

Originally published in the Rochester Civic Garden Center Bulletin August 2007, Vol. 64, No. 4

Photos copyright Kimbery Burkard, 2009.