Succession at Lathrop: The War of the Woods

by Barbara Walvoord

Resident Eleanor Herman took this photo on the east campus wide woods path. In a peaceful winter scene, darling little baby pine trees cluster around the skirts of their mother trees, and the in-woods meadow glistens with mist in the background behind the trees.

But this is actually a scene of movement and change–a scene of forest succession, which is taking place in all our woods on both campuses. The white pine seedlings in Eleanor’s photo are part of the emerging ecology of an ever more mature forest. They look cute and peaceful, but make no mistake, they are engaged in a fierce, life-and-death struggle–the war of the woods.

The succession begins when an old-growth forest is cleared for crops or pasture, as much of New England was in the 1700’s and 1800’s, and then is abandoned, as were many New England farms, including ours at Lathrop.

The plot of land in this photo was once a field. Left unplanted or ungrazed, it would first have sprouted herbaceous species like goldenrod and blackberries, which still dominate the meadow you see in the background, which we mow once a year to keep down the shrubs and trees. Unmowed, our land would next support sun-loving shrubs and small trees such as pin cherry, alder, dogwood, winterberry, and sumac. You can see lots of these fast-growing, short-lived trees along the edges of our forests or in fields where we have not kept up with the mowing.

But we don’t have cherry or sumac forests. That’s because, in the next stage, trees such as birch and poplar take over from the sumac, shading its sun-loving seedlings and crowding it out. In Eleanor’s photo, you can see some white birch trees on the right. Their days are numbered, as you can see in the forest just behind the Inn, where very few birch trees are still standing, but a number of dead birch trunks dot the forest floor.

Our Lathrop forests, like those all across New England, are heading toward a more mature stage, dominated by tall, long-lived, trees with shade-tolerant seedlings: mostly oak and white pine on higher ground, as in Eleanor’s photo, with hemlock on moist slopes by streams, and maples on richer, moister ground.

The tall pines in Eleanor’s photo have produced a veritable nursery of baby pines. The babies belong to the dominant species of our maturing woods, but very few of them will get as tall as their parents. They must fight for light, moisture, and nutrients against each other as well as against other species, not to mention their own parents.

Next time you walk the Lathrop woods, look for succession, and appreciate the fierce struggle going on among these darling little baby pines.

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