This is a new file opened February 6, 2012, for the summer 2012 issue of Kaatskill Life magazine.
GOING NUTS FROM GROWING NUTS IN THE EAST BRANCH DELAWARE VALLEY by Michael Kudish
Some of the forests in the East Branch Delaware Valley are most odd. They are unlike any other forests for tens of miles in any direction. They should not be here. There is no question about the presence of several unexpected species of nut trees – oaks, hickories, and American chestnut - plus some associated shrubs and herbs. These plants occur in localized populations or groves. This is a fact. They are here. But how they got here is open to question. To explain their origin, I would like to toss a wild idea out to you. The answer is no one knows, but I have a hypothesis – only a hypothesis – and I’d like your thoughts on it.
Where exactly are these nut tree groves?
These enigmatic groves are located on the hillsides, adjacent to the East Branch Delaware Valley, to an upper elevational limit of between 2000 and 2300 feet; the highest is on Pakatkan Mountain at 2500 feet. The groves occur on either side of the valley, from the river’s source in Grand Gorge (the gorge itself, not the hamlet of the same name) downstream to about Downsville. Those groves with the greatest number of nut tree species are located at the south end of Morris Hill in Arkville, on Pakatakan Mountain at Margaretville, and on the hills just above and north of the former hamlets of Shavertown and Pepacton. These groves are typically on south-facing or southwest-facing slopes, above broad flood plains where major tributaries are confluent with the East Branch. Upstream, between Grand Gorge and Arkville, the number of nut tree species is more limited; only two hickories and northern red oak are usually present. Downstream, between Downsville and the hamlet of East Branch, I have found to date only northern red oak, but I would not be surprised that Kaatskill Life readers exploring the region more carefully might find groves including additional nut tree species.
American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is certainly a nut-producing tree, but it is major component of the northern hardwood forest and is abundant throughout the Catskills. Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) is also widely distributed in the Catskills but not as widespread as beech. Only in portions of the high peaks interior – mainly in the Slide-Panther-Peekamoose-Big Indian-Beaverkill Range Wilderness Areas and in few smaller mountainous areas in Greene County – is northern red oak absent entirely. Butternut (Juglans cinerea) is also quite common, especially on the flood plain of the East Branch, but is not restricted to this valley. It does occur, but in lesser numbers, in many other areas throughout the Catskills. These three nut tree species – American beech, northern red oak, and butternut – because of their wide distribution in the Catskills are not considered in this study of the odd and unexpected groves. Then what species ARE considered? In the East Branch Delaware Valley nut groves, we also have white oak (Quercus alba), chestnut oak (Quercus montana), shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis), and American chestnut (Castanea dentata). Associated with these trees are black birch (Betula lenta) and three shrubs: mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), maple-leaved viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), and sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina). There are also a few associated herbs, but there is no space to discuss them here. Each grove usually has a different combination of nut tree species and associates. Very rarely do all of them grow together.
What kind of forest is in between the groves?
In between the groves of nut trees is the typical Catskills continuous (except where interrupted by still-open pastures) forest of northern hardwoods, dominated by sugar maple (Acer saccharum), beech, black cherry (Prunus serotina), red maple (Acer rubrum), and yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis). Along with the northern hardwoods is a common associated conifer, eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis).
The surrounding ridgelines and uplands where the groves are absent
When one explores the uplands and ridgelines above about 2300 feet in elevation on either side of the East Branch Valley, the nut tree species and their associates (except beech, northern red oak, and occasional butternut) are absent. The ridgelines to the east include, from north to south: Irish, Shultice, Roundtop, Bearpen, Red Kill Ridge, Vly, and Halcott Mountains. The ridgelines to the west, also from north to south, include Utsayantha, the Moresville Range, the peaks in Relay State Forest, Gray Hill, Old Clump, Meeker Hollow Mountain, Plattekill Mountain, Mount Pisgah, and Hubbell Hill. Instead of the nut tree forests, these ridgelines are dominated by northern hardwoods and locally eastern hemlock.
Distant areas that resemble the East Branch Delaware nut groves
The nearest nut tree forests that resemble the groves of the East Branch Delaware Valley are forests of primarily southerly affinities. These forests cover large tracts in four distant areas: (1) those along the base of the Catskills Escarpment (i.e. lands bordering the Hudson Valley), (2) those in the Ashokan Basin about as far upstream along Esopus Creek to about Big Indian, (3) those of the Delaware Valley downstream from where the East and West Branches are confluent in Hancock, and (4) those of roughly the southern half of Sullivan County.
A fifth area of similar nut tree forests may be the lower Schoharie Valley, but these forests are in the opposite direction from the East Branch Delaware: to the north rather than to the south. There are some oaks and hickories in the Schoharie Valley around Prattsville and Gilboa, but these tree species become even more numerous and continuous downstream toward Middleburgh. In other words, the East Branch Delaware Valley nut groves are much more like the forests around, for example, Kingston, Woodstock, Boiceville, Hancock, Ellenville, Wurtsboro, New Paltz, and Port Jervis than the forests much closer-by such as around Andes, Bovina, Hobart, Stamford, Delhi, Vega, Fleischmanns, Halcott, and Seager.
If one follows the East Branch downstream from the Downsville area, one does not begin to see frequent nut tree groves until one reaches the hamlet of East Branch, where the Beaverkill is confluent. But by the time one descends farther, into Hancock, the nut tree forest becomes more abundant and continuous.
The West Branch Delaware Valley
If we hop over the divide and follow the West Branch Delaware Valley downstream from its source above Stamford, it is not until we approach Hamden and Walton where we see the forest beginning to resemble the East Branch’s nut groves and the more southerly forests in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The headache began in 2009
For decades, I had noted scattered nut trees – oaks, hickories, and American chestnut – in the East Branch Delaware Valley but thought little of them - a quirk or coincidence perhaps. It was not until three years ago that I began to map the distribution of these nut tree species and their associates more carefully and thoroughly. The discovery of groves of white oak, sprouts of American chestnut, and mountain laurel on Morris Hill (just behind and above the Catskill Forest Association’s offices!) and on Pakatakan Mountain in the summer of 2009 created a number of sleepness nights and the frustration in explaining this distribution. The forest historian could “go nuts”, i.e. be driven almost to distraction, trying to solve the origin of this nutty puzzle – hence the title of this essay. How could the seeds of all these oaks, hickories, chestnut, and their associates - dispersed northward from the Hudson Valley, Ashokan Basin, lower Delaware River, and southern Sullivan County - independently and coincidentally “find” the sites and then grow together in these groves between Downsville and Grand Gorge? It seems that so many southern species seeding into these sites by pure chance would be very unlikely – almost impossible. It seems more plausible that some thing or some one might have introduced them.
One possible explanation – forest fires
The origin of the southerly nut tree forests in the Hudson Valley and other regions to the south of the Catskills has been quite well documented by anthropologists and archeologists. These forests have resulted from millennia of repeated burning by Native American peoples. Much of the original northern hardwood forest most likely disappeared, because of the burns, perhaps as long as 5000 or 6000 years ago. Forest fires were set to clear the woods for several reasons. Burning resulted in easier foot travel, easier hunting, more plentiful food gathering, and later agriculture. The clearing of forests for firewood around Native American villages would have created open areas easier for these less shade-tolerant nut trees to invade.
Could it be that the southern nut tree groves of East Branch Delaware Valley have experienced a similar origin? That the sites were burned over repeatedly by Native Americans? Or they were cleared for firewood and subsequently colonized by nut trees? Or both? There is plenty of evidence from archeologists and anthropologists that Native Americans were busy in the East Branch Delaware Valley with settlements, villages, and agricultural crops. Artifacts have been found around what is now Roxbury, Kelly Corners, Margaretville, Arena, and I am sure many other places. But I have not yet found in the literature descriptions of the regular burning of forests above the flood plain and/or the clearing for firewood.
In 2009, I wrote an article for the CFA News, newsletter of the Catskill Forest Association in Arkville (Ryan Trapani, educator for the CFA, also writes regularly for Kaatskill Life). The issue of the CFA News is Volume 27, Number 4, Fall 2009, pages 4 through 7. In this article, I prepared a map of the Catskills showing the number of species often associated with the aftermath of repeated forest fires. It was a contour map of vegetation, not of elevation. The map hypothesized the likelihood of any area burning repeatedly. Because there are no written records of burns in the Catskills going back several thousand years, all we can do is guess the probability of a repeated burn for a specific area. Some of the areas may never have burned (except for very localized and downpour-squelched lightning fires) such as in the High Peaks. Other areas may have indeed burned repeatedly: along the Escarpment, in the Ashokan Basin, and yes, in the East Branch Delaware Valley.
More than just burning?
Since the 2009 CFA News article was written, I’d like to take my hypothesis one step further. There is good evidence from other portions of New York State, especially from the the Finger Lakes westward to the Niagara Frontier, that Native American peoples planted nut and fruit orchards on the uplands in addition to cultivating the flood plains for maize, beans, squash, and other vegetable crops. To clear the original northern hardwood-hemlock forest before nut and fruit trees could be planted, fire would have been the most likely method used.
Could there have been nut orchards planted on the lower hills along the East Branch? Archeologists tell us that agricultural crops, planted mainly on flood plains in what is now the northeastern United States, were first introduced about 1000 or 1100 years ago.
Could nut orchards have begun about the same time in the East Branch?
Some archeological studies in the East Branch Valley yielded artifacts three or four thousand years old – apparently well before Native Americans became farmers. It seems unlikely that nut orchards could go back this far in time, although the clearing of northern hardwood-hemlock forest for firewood could well have.
Could the number of nut tree species in a grove be proportional to the intensity and duration of Native American activities, such as burning, agriculture, orchard planting, and clearing for firewood in any given area?
Some of the herb and shrub species associated with the nut trees could have been planted for medicinal and other uses, as opposed to food uses. Examples are mountain laurel, maple-leaved viburnum, sweet fern, and black birch. Ethnobotanists need to be consulted here for their advice.
A literature search yields little
I have just, in my home library, carefully re-examined my lecture notes taken at presentations by a number of speakers over the years on Native Americans, and re-read portions of a few dozen books and magazine articles. I was searching for any clues on burning and orchard creation in the East Branch Valley. I have found none. One difficulty is that the majority of archeologist researchers have anthropological, rather than forestry, training; they do not concentrate on the effects of people on forests. I suspect that most archeologists do not run around the countryside mapping plant distributions like this botanist turned forest historian. In fact, the indexes in most of these references do not even contain the words “forest”, “orchard”, “nuts”, “oak”, “acorn”, “hickory”, “chestnut”, “butternut”, “mountain laurel”, “sweet fern”, “maple-leaved viburnum”, “forest fires”, or “burned lands”. There are a few fine exceptions, but these references deal with other portions of New York State and the Northeast, not the East Branch Delaware Valley. Unfortunately, there is no room in this essay to present a detailed bibliography of such publications.
When might the nut orchards have been abandoned?
Are we looking today at small, fragmented remnants of a former, vaster, perhaps even more continuous orchard forests of oaks, hickories, chestnuts, and butternuts? If so, when were they abandoned? About the time Native American farmers were displaced by European farmers? If so, this would have been about the time of the American Revolution and during the several decades both preceding and following it.
Some of the older northern red oaks from which I have made ring counts date back nearly two hundred years; these trees were already here before the Europeans began much of industrial use of the forest. I have determined that the acid wood, lumber, charcoal, and other wood product industries had not caused their establishment. This gives more credibility to a Native American origin. By the time people of European ancestry moved into the region, around the time of the American Revolution, forest fires frequently and previously set by Native Peoples to maintain the nut orchards and other purposes must have ceased. There are no written records for extensive burns in East Branch Delaware Valley over the last two hundred years.
Why are the nut groves shrinking?
Oaks, hickories, chestnut, and butternut are only moderately tolerant of shade. They find it more difficult to reproduce if no further burns, or other methods of thinning the forest, occur to keep the groves semi-open. During the last fifty to one hundred years or so, some of these nut trees have survived up to the present because they were able to seed in, from nearby groves, on open abandoned pasturelands. These pasturelands are now in young forest, but the oaks, hickories, and chestnut are usually not reproducing. Perhaps within another century they will be gone.
The reason? Northern hardwoods-hemlock forest species are more shade-tolerant. Increasing shade on the forest floor favors this forest of mainly sugar maple, beech, and eastern hemlock. Northern hardwoods are slowly but surely replacing the oaks, hickories, chestnut, and butternut. This is happening now commonly throughout the Hudson Valley, Shawangunks, Escarpment, and Ashokan Basin so why not in the East Branch Delaware Valley?
The nut tree groves of the East Branch Valley might be there because of very different origins. One alternative origin is that larger birds such as crows, jays, grouse, and passenger pigeons could have flown the nuts in from the south and established the groves. A second alternative origin could have been a series of lightning fires occurring during prolonged periods of drought, favoring the nut trees which are good sprouters following burns, over the less fire-resistant northern hardwoods. A third alternative origin could be a combination of all the above origins – Native American burning and orchards, Native American clearing for firewood, birds, and lightning fires. The establishment of each nut tree grove could have been caused by a unique combination of factors and at a different time. Such complex combinations of factors are the rule in most ecological processes and in the development of forests.
What all this really boils down to is we simply do not know. None of us was in this valley between several thousand to two hundred years ago to observe what was occurring. The forest itself may be able to tell us much if we learn how to read it. This essay, as were other essays by this author for Kaatskill Life, has been a struggle to organize and write because it is more than a summary of what other authors have previously discovered; it is a report on new studies in progress.