Thursday, January 11, 2018

MD Elk Neck State Forest: Planting a Biological Garden

This week's extreme cold kept most birds hunkered down except for around my feeders at home and any open water remaining on the Susquehanna so I ventured out to study the forests at the edge of transition. Bundled up against the cold wind I headed over to Elk Neck State Forest in Cecil County, Maryland. Off of Old Elk Neck Road a few miles south of Rt. 40, a new arboretum has gone in and I heard that I could see a very impressive red cedar (Juniperius virginianis) that I could add to my 2018 Big Tree Hunt. But first...

A Maryland Big Tree Champ: White Oak at the Brick Meeting House, Cecil County
On my way to Elk Neck, I stopped the historic Calvert Brick Meeting House, a Friends (Quaker) meeting near Rising Sun, MD, to check out a huge White Oak, Maryland's State Tree. I could really study the architecture of this magnificent oak with a confirmed spread of 130 feet! At 96 feet high and bare of leaves I could really see how the big limbs counter-balanced each other. While I stood gaping at it, I also counted ten species of birds that visited to search for food or hunker on the lee side out of the wind.

Can't wait to revisit this old oak when the leaves come on!

The meeting house just behind has been in continuous use since 1709 and still offers First Day (Sunday) worship on the first and third Sundays of the month. The land was originally ceded to create a Quaker community in the highly disputed borders area by William Penn as a local land grant. The tree, according to the Penn's Tree Committee of the early 20th century, claims that the tree was present at the time the original (then brick) Meeting House was built, over three-hundred years ago. I tried to give the tree a hug but my arms wouldn't go even a fraction of the way around. So, I just gave it a pat. On to Elk Neck State Forest ...

Red Cedar,
On arrival I was greeted by a handsome red cedar. Beautiful! John Bennett, coordinator of the Maryland Big Tree program, kindly sent me the specs on this champion. It was last measured in 2011 and  at that time had a trunk circumference of 8 ft. 3 inches (99 in.) and a height of 67 feet. Now you know at this point, in the below zero temps, my rewilding heart was jumping for joy and keeping me plenty warm as I walked round and round and imagined a grass savanna with a herd of elk cooling off in the tree's shadow.  The tree, minus the elk, scored 174 points on the Big Tree scale.  I dashed back to the car to thaw my camera. Yes. My camera froze.

Broomsedge takes over on old ag fields adjacent to the  arboretum site - looking like it needs some elk.

Humans have been keeping and maintaining biological gardens as long as there has been agriculture - about 9,000 years. The purposeful planting of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers in collections have enhanced our understanding of ancient cultures. They serve, too, as a window into how we value plants as educational, genetic, and aesthetic resources.  Arboretums are collections of trees and shrubs and they have long captured our botanical attention.  There are so many fine arboretums throughout the Mid-Atlantic that it could take a year of weekends to see them all - maybe a 2019 New Year's Resolution?

Black Birch: dark bark

I've visited a lot - from the National Botanical Gardens and Arboretum in D.C., to Longwood Gardens (omg!) in Kennet Square, PA, the Tyler Arboretum in Media, PA, the Morris Arboretum in Philly, and  the Adkins and Cylburn  in Maryland, not to mention the many fine university arboretums in our six state region. There's even a small (but now neglected) arboretum preserve in Holtwood, PA, near where I live. It was part of a the Holtwood Dam preserve and at one time was the pride of the Holtwood community. Professional arborists and a team of knowledgeable foresters took care of the 2,000 woodland preserve and arboretum for many decades. Now, however, after a succession of power company buy-outs and conglomerations, the current owner, Talen Energy, has no interest in maintaining the arboretum, community ball fields, pavilion, nature center, pollinator gardens, and trails. It makes me sad to go there now, because the pride of stewardship is gone, but at least the land is under the management of the Lancaster County Conservancy after the community raised a ruckus two years ago.

Willow Oak: flat-topped furrows

This was my first visit to a new arboretum, a just-planted tree collection, a first for the Maryland's Forestry Service. Now that my camera was thawed and working again, I took the figure-8 path through the mature woods and the open area and studied the newly planted with saplings for their buds, fruit, and structure. I have a fairly large photo file of winter tree trunks that I've been keeping as reference as an ID and illustration aid for years now and this little trail provided me with several more for the collection. Information tree ID signs are found throughout the arboretum (lift up for natural history).

Sweet Gum - alligator- hide scaled ridges

This is an interesting observation: one of the newest arboretums is within an hour's drive of the oldest botanical garden and arboretum in the country at Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia. I kept this in mind as I trekked through the snow thinking what a great summer visit to Bartram's place will be. Thinking warm thoughts. Many of the arboretums and botanical gardens in the eastern region of the Delaware/Maryland/Pennsylvania area were started by or on land owned by Quakers in the early 1700s, like the Bartram family.  Many fine Quaker colleges have maintained their own arboretums  like Bryn Mawr and Haverford. Some Quaker arboretums ended up as state parks throughout the region.

Scarlet Oak - stripey furrows

Aside from their colonial and religious founders, arboretums serve as important research sites today in natural history and climate science - although many universities struggle to staff and maintain them. Gropp (2003) surveyed the decline of natural history research resources and found that herbariums, native plant gardens, specimen collections, and campus-based natural history museums are facing daunting financial challenges as funding is redirected towards other biological programs including genetics and microbiology. Though the study is over ten years old, the situation for campus biological collections including arboretums, has not changed. It doesn't look to get any better any time soon. 

Swamp Chestnut - loose and scaly
Persimmon - checkered

Possumhaw - black berries waiting for robins

At the same time that institutions threaten to close or shutter natural history resources, scientists and their associations that work with ex situ collections for conservation work are raising their voices about the importance of living biological collections (like arboretums) as "arks" of preservation. From a study by Havens et. al. (2006):

"Gardens can support habitat protection directly by owning or managing natural areas, or they can contribute to in situ conservation efforts indirectly through research, advocacy, and outreach programs. Stewardship professionals face many practical challenges that can be approached using ex situ techniques. When habitats are degraded and lose diversity, ex situ facilities can provide landscape species for habitat restoration, threatened taxa for reintroductions, and often the skills and resources needed for effective reestablishment of species. Conservation efforts for individual species should, wherever possible, be integrated with regional conservation plans for ecosystems as well as suites of species. As habitat declines in quality and quantity, the species load for ex situ management increases. As a result, gardens and other ex situ facilities will increasingly need to coordinate ex situ responsibilities with habitat restoration."

Hackberry - squiggly!

American Hornbeam -chickadee ladder
Blackhaw - bird beak buds

I have to check with the local forester to discover what the purpose for this arboretum will be and whether the State Forest folks plan to create educational programming around the collection. My conversation with John Bennett about the champion red cedar here prompted an invitation to attend a local forestry board meeting which I did a few evenings after. It was a hoot. I learned a lot and had time to catch up with an old friend of mine from my DNR days (in a previous century).

Pitch Pine - an eager pioneer for old fields
Mountain Laurel - growing wild just inside the woodlot

Whatever the purpose of the arboretum will be, whether educational or ark, it's clear the forest service is investing in it. A clean restroom, great parking, kiosks, benches, and an excellent level, short trail make this a nice place to visit for an hour or two. BUT - I was so cold by the time I walked the whole trail - about a mile total -  I could barely shuffle up to the parking area. The camera had long ago frozen and I was hoping my cell phone camera could capture the one bird I saw here - a Carolina wren. It did. Once back in the car I watched as a young man (also with camera in hand) bolted from his car to take a few pictures of the Black Haw berries. I think he got two pictures before I saw him knocking on his camera and mouthing angry words. Frozen in time...

Carolina Wren


The Penn Tree Committee, a group of foresters and historians who dedicated to finding and documenting the oldest trees in the original grants of William Penn, published a book in the 1980s, "Penn's Woods 1682-1982." This might be a fun book to hunt down and add to the 2018 Big Tree Hunt materials. It places the Brick Meeting House oak at 300+ yrs. of age at the time they surveyed.

Gropp, Robert E. "Are University Natural Science Collections Going Extinct." 
BioScience. Vol. 53, No. 6 (June 2003): 550
Havens, et al. " Ex Situ Plant Conservation And Beyond." BioScience. Vol. 56, No. 6 (June 2006):  525–531.


  1. Interesting that your camera froze, my Canons and the Sony, Olympus and Nikon cameras in my homebrewed trail cameras function down to at least -15 degrees (F) with no problems.

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