In Awe of Three Trees in Hubbard Park

by Jessica Neary

There’s a saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” Sometimes it’s the opposite. You can miss individual trees for the mass of forest. And, as is well known to Hubbard park enthusiasts, there are some pretty great trees in the park.

According to Geoff Beyer, director of Montpelier Parks Department, including Montpelier’s 185-acre-jewel-in-the-crown Hubbard Park, there are several interesting specimens in the park.

One of the park’s largest and oldest trees is a beech with a grandchild or young tree sprouting from its roots. This beech rises majestically into the sky with nary a branch for 40 feet. Its beauty is more striking because of a long-term affliction with beech scale disease, which Barbara Schultz, forest health program manager, explains is caused by insects boring tiny holes in the bark, which are then infected by fungi that kill a small part of the bark. As one looks up at this gorgeous, dying beech, its bark marked by black wedges of blight, its top flat like a table, a few living branches reaching into the sky, one can understand Beyer’s affection for the tree. As brilliant tree scholar Colin Tudge reminds us, “beauty and decay are never far apart.” The beech has a circumference of 10 feet and is probably at least 350 years old, according to Beyer.

The second tree I met was a hemlock, which rose tall and straight for 25 feet before its first branch. Alec Ellsworth, a young, enthusiastic park ranger and administrative assistant to Beyer, considers hemlocks the “strong, silent, old patriarchs of the forest.” Hemlocks are often much older than their circumference suggests, hanging out in the understory and slowly, steadily growing.

Ellsworth tells a Native American legend that explains why hemlocks have the smallest cones of all conifers. When God was handing out cones, the hemlocks cut in line, and out of shame received the smallest cones.

Ellsworth cut a core sample from a fallen hemlock with a diameter of about 2-1/2 feet, and counted 201 rings, an amazing number for its size. Looking at the tightly spaced rings, one can see how strong the tree was during its life and its will to survive in harsh conditions, confirming Ellsworth’s love of hemlocks. He plans to display the sample in the park.

The third tree mentioned to me by Parks Director Beyer is a red oak by the park’s famous tower. It is eight to 10 feet from the tower and is one of a stand of about 30 red oaks in the area. Its circumference is about eight to 10 feet. Red oaks are one of the world’s most successful tree species and can reproduce either by wind pollination or by sprouting from damaged trunks.

Tudge, in his masterly work, “Trees,” talks of how different the sizes of oaks can be depending on where the acorn dropped. “Is the twisted stick less of an oak because it fell on stony ground?” Heady stuff.

What fascinates me and many others about trees is their resemblance to humans — they just don’t move as much. But they do talk. Jay Lackey, another Vermont forestry expert, stresses that trees communicate chemically, either through leaves or roots. Leaves warn each other of approaching threats.

When a tree starts to die, other trees pull nutrients from it. Lackey also says that where trees are cut down, human mortality increases, especially heart and respiratory illnesses.

I’ll give the last word on trees to Svetlana Alexeievich, author of “Chernobyl” and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature:

“Radiation. It scares people and it scares animals and birds.

And the trees are scared, too, but they are quiet, they won’t say anything.

But as science is discovering, trees do talk. We just aren’t listening.”

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