Gemmill Park Forest

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Neil Carleton 2by Neil Carleton

Gemmill Park in Almonte is well known for the arena, curling rink, soccer field, swings, tennis court, track, and baseball diamond.  Not everyone is familiar with the woodland trails which are used in all seasons.

A review of the Park’s history will help set the stage for a walk through the forest.  Please see my earlier column, April 2012, “Gemmill Homestead White Oak”.

A natural forest has survived in the heart of Almonte, and it’s a municipal treasure of arboreal diversity.  This month’s column is an introduction to some of the shady characters you’ll meet on walks along winter trails.

Eastern white pine is common in the forest of Gemmill Park.  Its shape depends on where the tree is growing.  In an open field, or along a field edge, white pine usually has a straight uniform trunk with wide branches along the middle portion. The branches near the top curve upwards, creating an oval silhouette.  
Eastern white pine is common in the forest of Gemmill Park.  Its shape depends on where the tree is growing.  In an open field, or along a field edge, white pine usually has a straight uniform trunk with wide branches along the middle portion. The branches near the top curve upwards, creating an oval silhouette.
 In the forest, the trunks of white pines are usually straight and free of branches for two-thirds or more of their height.  Although white pine can live for more than 4 centuries, reaching heights of 30-50 m / 98–164 ft, and diameters of 1-1.5 m / 3–5 ft, there are no old growth pine left in Gemmill Park.  Only a half hour drive away, in Arnprior, a remarkable stand of old growth white pine is accessible along the Gillies Trail.  http://arnprior.ca/live/maps/gillies-trail/
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Bur oak does well in the company of other hardwood species and scattered conifers.  When it grows in the woods with other trees, the trunk is straight and tall with a short crown.  Mature bark is gray to brown, deeply furrowed.  Ridges are rough, scaly looking but not flaky, more flattened than rounded.
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American beech is more common in the forest at the north end of Gemmill Park.  When beechnuts are ripe in the fall, the prickly burs are soon opened by a wide range of forest inhabitants for the 2 pyramidal-shaped 3-sided nuts within.  The light gray, smooth bark of the American beech, which has been compared in appearance to tough elephant skin, is thin and easily breached by the beech scale.  It’s a tiny insect smaller than the head of a pin which was accidentally introduced from Europe in the late 1800s.  When the beech scale penetrates the bark to feed on sap, it introduces a fungus which is usually fatal to the tree.  Some of the older and larger beech trees in Gemmill Park show advanced signs of the bark disease.
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The competition for light is fierce in any forest.  To survive, a tree must produce a canopy of leaves which catches sufficient sunlight for growth.  In this photo, the beautiful late day light of winter bathes the upper reaches of Gemmill Park trees at the level where survival is determined.
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Also reaching for sunlight in Gemmill Park are native wild grape vines.  The seeds, which are spread by birds and small mammals that feed on the fruit, require full sunlight to germinate.  Once buried in the soil, a grape seed can lay dormant for many years, waiting for the necessary conditions to sprout.  It grows in the forest after logging, fire, or a windfall have created an opening in the canopy for sunlight to the reach the ground.  Wild grape vine climbs up a tree by forking tendrils, and forms a canopy that can block enough sunlight to significantly reduce a tree’s ability to grow properly.  It can be identified in winter by its long stringy bark, with a diameter as much 8-10 cm / 3-4 in.

 Thinking of the forest as a multi-layered structure helps to understand its complexity.

Supercanopy Trees  At Gemmill Park some tall pines reach above the canopy.

Canopy Trees  Mature trees, such as sugar maple, American beech, and white ash, form a continuous ceiling that shades the layers below.

Understorey Trees  Ironwood (hop hornbeam), sugar maple, and American beech are shade tolerant and can grow beneath the canopy where their growth rate is limited by the lack of sunlight.  Although much smaller, they may be as old as canopy trees.

Shrubs And Saplings  With limited sunlight they can grow in open areas and in the shade of mature canopy trees.

Decaying Wood  Fallen branches and toppled trunks create habitat for forest reptiles and amphibians, as well invertebrates, fungi, and bacteria.

Ground Cover  Mosses, flowers, ferns, and seedlings of shrubs and trees form a layer of life on the forest floor.

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Hawthorn, recognized in the winter by its rough shredding bark and thorny twigs, prefers full sun but tolerates partial shade along Gemmill Park trails.  This small flowering tree can hold its fruit well into the winter, providing nourishment for birds, deer, rabbits and other forest inhabitants.
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Cavity trees, living or dead, are part of a healthy forest.  Mammals and birds need cavities to raise a family, feed, and escape from predators.  In North America, 55 bird species nest in tree cavities.  Primary cavity users, like woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, and nuthatches, make feeding and nesting cavities in live trees. These excavations, as well as cavities created by broken branches and decay, are also used by secondary cavity users such as owls and a variety of tree climbing mammals.
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When the opportunity arises, a closer look at a tree can reveal remarkable detail in its bark, branching, or leaves.  In winter, the dried keys of the boxelder, also known as Manitoba maple, will allow sunlight to pass right though, revealing the delicate pattern of veins.  The complex design of maple seeds allows them to begin their helicopter rotation as soon as they’re released from the tree.  As it spins, the wider surface at the far end of the blade creates the lift.  The veins are concentrated on the thicker leading edge of the wing which cuts into the air during spinning.  The weight of the veins, it’s understood, improves the angle of attack of the wing.  The profile of a maple seed, with rounded leading edge and tapering wing, can be compared to the shape of a bird or aircraft wing.
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Beauty is everywhere in the forest, from macro to micro in scale.  These hoarfrost crystals grew in unique conditions by direction condensation of water vapour to ice.  This occurred at temperatures below freezing when damp air by the Gemmill Park stream was brought to frost point by cooling.

There is much to discover along the forest trails of Gemmill Park in any season.

Do you have a notable or favourite tree?  Readers are invited to submit their nominations for an honor roll of trees in our area that could be featured in future articles.  You can contact me at 613-256-2018, <ve3nce@gmail.com>, or Neil Carleton, P.O. Box 1644, Almonte, Ontario, K0A 1A0.  I look forward to hearing from you.

My volunteer columns started in March 2010 to support the tree planting and tree awareness initiatives of the Mississippi Mills Beautification Committee. The contact for the Tree Committee is Ron Ayling, 613-804-4617. In Carleton Place, the contact for the Urban Forest / River Corridor Advisory Committee is Jim McCready, 613-257-5853.

Until the next column, you’ll find me looking for and hanging out with shady characters.

Unless otherwise noted Photos: © Neil Carleton