What’s Growing at the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens: Reading the Forest Around You

What’s Growing at the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens: Reading the Forest Around You
By Riley Scanlan, B.Sc Honours, Environmental Science

Stepping into an old growth forest can be a calming, inspiring, or even breathtaking experience, but what is it exactly that makes old growth forests so beautiful? So worthy of our attention? Just as you gain insight from reading a book, reading the forest around you can empower you to better connect with nature. Reading a forest is as simple as taking the time to acknowledge what is actually going on around you, thinking about how it all works together and walking away with something gained – be it knowledge, an experience or a feeling.

I realize ‘reading a forest’ may sound like an abstract concept, but I am writing this to hopefully convince you otherwise. As a research student working in the E.C. Smith Herbarium at the K.C. Irving Environmental Science Centre, my project involves locating the remaining old growth forests in the Annapolis Valley and analyzing relevant legislation. My story at the botanical gardens, however, began a few years ago when I poked my head in and asked how I could help. Bouncing from the gardens to the seed bank, and now to the herbarium, I’ve come to appreciate the K.C. Irving Centre for all it has to offer. The gardens and surrounding research labs are a hub of innovative projects run by incredible people, sharing ideas about how to make our planet a little bit better.

Reading an old growth forest is an idea that I hope will bring our community closer to these wonderful habitats. Old growth forests are unique and important ecosystems. They are living museums of genetic diversity and ecological continuity (meaning they have been able to persist and evolve for a very long time). These forests are essentially nature’s experts at disease and disturbance resistance and so contain invaluable scientific information. They also act as important global carbon sinks, continuing to sequester more carbon as they age. Many birds and mammals in the Acadian Forest Region rely on large trees and deadwood found in old growth forests, including northern goshawks and martens. Unfortunately, these ecosystems are becoming increasingly rare. Believed to have once covered up to half of Nova Scotia, old growth forests now make up less than one percent of forested land outside of protected areas.

In Nova Scotia, old growth forests are defined as having at least one third of the trees older than 125 years old, a lack of human development, varied trunk diameters and diverse canopy and stand structure. But not to worry, it is indeed possible to understand the forest you are in without a tree borer or a measuring tape. You can simply look for an abundance of dead standing trees, wide spacing between trees and a lack of branches close to the ground. If you’re familiar with tree identification, the six tree species indicative of typical old growth in the Acadian Forest Region are eastern hemlock, red spruce, sugar maple, American beech and yellow birch. These species make up the final successional stages of the Acadian Forest Region and will dominate in old forests. Generally, if the area seems largely undisturbed, you can easily walk between large trees and see bits of blue sky through the canopy, you may very well have found a happy old growth forest!

That said, lush canopies and the presence of eastern hemlock do not guarantee you’re in a healthy forest. Especially in and around towns, many beautiful and dominant plants may not be native and may even be invasive (meaning they out-compete native species). Becoming familiar with common invasive plants can take your forest reading to another level. Perhaps the nastiest invasive plant to watch out for in Nova Scotia is glossy buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula). A great resource I’ve come to rely on is the Nova Scotia Forest Notes website created by David Patriquin (nsforestnotes.ca). Patriquin was a professor at Dalhousie who has since dedicated many hours to creating this great, informative website, which I recommend to anyone interested in forests.

As with all things, the more I learn about old growth forests, the more my appreciation grows for them. I’ve also begun to grasp just how much I have yet to learn. Regardless of your knowledge background, the best way to start is to get outside and spend some time in these magnificent spaces. To hone your tree identification skills, take a stroll through the botanical gardens at Acadia. You can find Acadian Forest Region trees (and many other plants!) labelled and easy to spot. You can then go search for old growth forest along the slopes of the Gaspereau River just outside Wolfville, or the Hemlock Ravine in Kentville, or the old hardwood forests of Cape Split and Cape Blomidon! Take some time to look around, read between the trunks, and be aware of what’s there. Perhaps you’ll even run into a fellow explorer, share thoughts on the forest you read that day, and walk away with a deeper connection to these living relics of our environmental history.

Photo caption: Old growth forest along the north slope of the Gaspereau River where we located a 140 year old eastern hemlock!