Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Counting Chestnuts

Castanea dentata
On Monday, I had the pleasure of joining Mike and Kieu Manes for a day of American Chestnut (Castanea dentata)counting. I had sparked up a conversation with Mike at the Festival of Wood when I spied his NY/NJ Appalachian Trail Conference shirt. We talked about the AT, MST, the book, and then about the American Chestnut when I learned that he and his wife were involved not only with the Appalachian Mountain Club and local AT conferences but with the American Chestnut Foundation. I soon met Kieu who was excited to see Pennywort featured in my book, which she is familiar with from her native home, Vietnam. In Vietnam, Pennywort juice is a well known drink called nuac rau ma. It is made from Centella asiatica, a different plant from the species of Hydrocotyle described in my book, but still closely related. Anyhow, the three of us soon found ourselves making plans to share some plant knowledge.

Kieu and her measuring device, an important tool used when counting the Chestnuts.
Mike measuring the distance of an American Chestnut from the Appalachian Trail
So on Monday morning we met at Fox Gap on the Appalachian Trail, which sits just outside of Stroudsburg, PA on Route 191. Mike and Kieu presented me with an American Chestnut counting kit and gave me instructions of just what we'd be doing. We were to walk the AT slowly, headed south towards Wolf Rocks, and record each American Chestnut that we saw along the way that stood at least 3 feet high and within 15 feet of the trail. We could admire the others but this is a mission   called the AT MEGA Transect Chestnut Project, in which the AMC is teaming up with the American Chestnut Foundation to find out just how many trees are surviving on the AT. However if we spotted a tree which had trunk that was 13 inches or more in diameter, we were then to make special note of it, and get up close and personal recording as much as we could about it.

Note the orange bumps on the trunk of the tree - this is evidence of the blight (Cryphonectia parasitica) that infects and kills the American Chestnut.
Why spend the whole day counting American Chestnut trees? Because they are a nearly extinct species. Nearly 25% of all trees in the Appalachian Mountains and from the Piedmont west to Ohio River Valley, its once thriving habitat, were at one time American Chestnut. In Pennsylvania, the American Chestnut was even more prolific, comprising 30% of all hardwoods. This tree was prized for its rot-resistant, tannin-rich wood, which was also straight-grained and grew rapidly, easily reaching over 90 feet in height and nearly 10 feet in diameter. Not only was the lumber excellent for building, but its tannins were used for tanning leather, and the nuts of course were a commodity as well, reportedly more delicious than those of the European Chestnut (Castanea sativa) which we enjoy today.

It was in 1904 at what is now considered the Bronx Zoo, that the blight was first discovered. This fungus, believed to have originated from Asia and accidentally transported here on infected lumber, is now dubbed the American Chestnut blight, however it's scientific name is Cryphonectia parasitica. Within 50 years, nearly 4 billion trees had been killed and this is the state in which we find the species today.  New American Chestnut trees will sprout from old roots as well as from seed, however, in almost all instances, the tree will inevitably be destroyed by the blight which enters through natural fissures in the bark which form on the tree with age or through other points of entry such as a snapped or severed twig. Once inside, it spreads through the vascular cambium, killing the this tissue and surrounding tissue, and it becomes impossible for the tree to transport nutrients. It is incredibly rare for a tree to survive beyond 20 years of age. 

The blight enters through naturally occurring fissures in the bark of older trees (fissures can be seen to the left, orange blight to the right) 
There are however small populations of healthy American Chestnuts out west that survive as well as in Michigan and dappled throughout its original habitat in the Appalachian Mountains. Those out west and in Michigan are a result of pioneers carrying the seeds and planting them for eventual lumber harvest or as a food source. The surviving populations are a result of fortunate isolation, protecting them from the spreading fungus.

Kieu walking Wolf Rocks on the AT
However, I think recording nearly 170 American Chestnut within less than 2 miles of trail is pretty darn good. This count does not include all the smaller saplings we saw and those that stood more than 15 feet from the trail. A good number of these 170 were clearly infected with blight and it is most likely that the younger ones that were not yet showing evidence of infection were already infected or will be in due time. We saw none that were 13 inches in circumference, however we did see several that were rather tall and slender with a beautiful spread of green leafy branches.

I imagine I have hiked blindly by many more American Chestnuts than I have ever known. Down south, I'd often pass a tree that I suspected to be American, however I knew it was just as likely to be a Chinese Chestnut (Castanea mollissima) which bears close resemblance at first glance. However, up here in the northeast, our woods possess very few Chinese Chestnuts. I imagine they would be found at old homesites but they have not naturalized here as they have down south. European Chestnuts would also have to be planted to be found within our woods. Therefore up here, if you spot what looks like an American Chestnut, it is a strong likelihood that it indeed what you have! That is as long as you pay attention to a few key features.

A typical looking American Chestnut Leaf

The leaves are alternate, longer than they are wide and have a tendency to droop. The margins (outer edge of leaf) are toothed, with each tooth appearing sharply hooked. The bases are V-shaped and the apexes (leaf tips) come to long sharp points. The tops of leaves will be a dull green in color with light green undersides and free of hair. Chinese Chestnut leaves are more oval shaped with rounded bases and shorter pointed apexes. Chinese Chestnut teeth will also be less sharp and not hooked, the undersides of leaves whitish with fine hairs.

Chestnut Oak Leaf (Quercus montana)
The more likely tree one could confuse with American Chestnut is a Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana), which is also a member of the Beech family (Fagaceae). However the margin of a Chestnut Oak leaf will have rounded teeth or lobes and will not bear sharply pointed apexes.

An American Beech leaf
Another possibly lookalike would be the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia). However you can see that the teeth are not as sharply hooked along the margin and that the apex is more short-pointed. Overall the American Beech leaf is also more oval shaped and less elongated.

There are of course other members of the Beech family that could also look similar such as the Allegheny Chinkapin (Castanea pumila), but those leaves will be glossier on top and bearing white hairs on underside. The teeth along the margins will be short and non-hooked. This tree is also less likely to be found as far north as northeast Pennsylvania.

The American Chestnut Foundation has been hard at work breeding Chinese Chestnuts which have a natural resistance to the blight, with American Chestnuts to build up the American Chestnut's resistance. The chestnuts that survive are then bred again with another American Chestnut, therefore increasing the percentage of American Chestnut genetics within the tree as well as the resistance. The foundation presently has a line of chestnuts that are 94% American. They are calling these their Restoration Chestnuts. With these efforts, perhaps one day future generations will again be able to look out over a vista such as this and see the tops of American Chestnuts.

The view from Wolf Rocks
 To learn more about the American Chestnut Foundation, check out their website at And to my Asheville you know that this foundation's headquarters is located on Merrimon in Asheville? Thank you so much Mike and Kieu for sharing your knowledge with me! I can now spot an American Chestnut more than 15 feet away and clustered amongst many other trees! Keep sharing. What an awesome day.

Mike and Kieu Manes - American Chestnut extraordinaires

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Traversing Milford By Trail

A small gravel portion of the Cliff Trail
What better thing to do after dropping your car off at the shop for the day, than to taking the day to appreciate your own two feet? I could have just walked the two miles home or called for a ride, but without a car, I'd be left with little means to do anything productive. I decided I'd rather be grateful for a day to do nothing but amble in the woods.

From the center of town I made my way to the edge following Route 206, passing the closed down steel Blue Bridge on Mott Street and over the more modern concrete bridge over the Sawkill Stream. Here the road widens and traffic increases, as one will eventually travel into Delaware Water Gap or Sussex County, New Jersey depending on whether you go left or right at the fork. Within minutes, I reached the entrance to the Milford Cemetery on my right. This is an access point to the Milford Knob Trail. Once at the Knob, one can overlook the entire town of Milford speckled with church steeples, a picturesque grid of tiny roads, and the tops of green bushy trees. The Knob will however have to be the topic of another post, because in this case I used this trail only to lead me to another.

Follow the winding roads through the manicured green lawns of the Milford Cemetery up, up, up and you can reach this gated entrance to the trail. On this day, I followed the trail just a 0.2 mile in and then turned left on the Quarry Trail. This is a more gradual 0.5 m ascent up to the Cliff Trail. The Milford Knob Trail will take you straight up, to the overlook, and then left across the top of the ridge on the Cliff Trail. Perpetually covered in a bed of leaves that will only get thicker come fall, The Quarry Trail takes you alongside the mountain past Eastern Hemlock, various Oaks, and Birch. Green grass sheltering Violet leaves and Chickweed, as well as Blackberry brambles line its edges. Once intersecting with the Cliff Trail, I turned left and followed the narrow alternate trail which takes you right up to the edge of the cliff and to the first overlook.

An colorful overlook along the Cliff Trail
I was quite pleased to see that the wooden fencing here had been artfully decorated. Unfortunately kids will be kids, and this fence had formerly been decorated with all kinds of creative lude depictions and suggestions - I have no beef with "Katie luvs Billy 4-eva", I mean none, go 'head sing your love from the mountain tops, but the rest of it, come on kiddies, let's have some decency. Well it appears someone came up with a some spray paint and has illustrated Milford's embrace of the LGBT population. Right on- this is productive grafitti. Plus, it's kinda pretty.

Looking towards the Delaware Water Gap at the Riverview Overlook on the Cliff Trail
However, just beyond this fence, is where the real beauty lies. There are several designated overlooks along the 2.8 mile Cliff Trail, however at just about any point one can wander to the edge and behold the sweeping landscape below, made up of rocky cliff, farmland, the McDade Trail, the Delaware River, and the Kittatinny Ridge.

Looking back towards town along the Cliff Trail
On this day I followed the Cliff Trail down to its terminus at Raymondskill Falls. Raymondskill Falls are majestic falls surrounded with its own set of easy designated trails as well as bushwacked meandering sidetrails... however it is heavily frequented with tourists. Thus, why bother with all that, when I can enjoy somewhat lesser visited falls and on a weekday morning, probably completely uninhabited by the city folk. And so doubling back less than a 0.1 mile on the Cliff Trail, I turned left, following the yellow blazes of Hacker's Trail.

A portion of Hacker's Trail
The first 0.5m of Hacker's Trail looks almost identical to the way in which one has just come down off the Cliff Trail, but worry not, you are indeed on a different trail. Upon reaching the intersection with the Logger's Path and turning left, continuing to follow Hacker's Trail (turning right would lead you back to the Cliff Trail), the landscape changes. I was dropped yet further down, nearly to the moss-covered rocky banks of Raymondskill Creek. Here I passed rich woods of White Pine and Eastern Hemlock, as well as more Birch. The trail is more difficult to follow as it is less popular to head towards the real gem of this trail from this end. However, traveling in this direction, one is afforded side trails to the creek where tiny cascades follow over big black smooth rocks forming surprisingly deep pools along the way. I couldn't reach bottom in one pool I took a dip in the other day, although it looked unassuming at no more than 10 feet in circumference. When the creek is low, I have also walked the sun-dappled flat rocks that cradle the edges of creek all the way to the larger falls.

Hacker's Falls
Within just 0.6 m, I reached Hacker's Falls. I used to come here as a kid with my friends and swim the day away and many kids still do just the same. Although I have never dared, the craggy cliffs offer excellent cliff-jumping spots. But if you decide to go for it, make sure you know what you're doing as so many folks have gotten injured here jumping from these cliffs, the park service decided to close down the road that used to bring you to a trail that was a shorter walk to the falls.

The swimming hole at the base of Hacker's Falls
However, on this day, just as I had hoped, there wasn't another soul here, and so perfect for a dip and time to quite literally smell the flowers. Now I do apologize ahead of time, but I failed to bring my camera on this trek and so all these photos were taken with my phone. My phone is terrible for up-close shots, and so no flower faces. But along the rocks lining the far edge of the swimming hole I found a variety of Violet (Viola spp.) leaves, flowering Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and Blackberry (Rubus spp.)vines, as well as several showy Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis). If you check out the scientific name, you can see that this too is a Lobelia, and thus related to Lobelia inflata. However whereas Lobelia inflata is rather unassuming with its tiny blue flowers and modest stature, Lobelia cardinalis can reach up to 5 feet tall (although these were only about 3 feet tall), and bears a spike of scarlet flowers each 1-1 1/2 inch long. It is a flower first spotted as a flash of red across a creek or narrow river. 

The other find was more Water Pennywort (Hydrocotyle americana), funny how once you identify a plant it simply seems to pop out at you everywhere you go, in the places you've probably overlooked it a hundred times before. I also had the pleasure of meeting Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia). This flower required my literally hanging onto the craggy cliffs to get a better look as it only grew atop the rock itself, making a home in the shallow soil collected there and the spray of the waterfall. The leaves of Harebell are so slender they barely look like leaves, but rather more like needles or tough grass. From what I understand, Harebell does bare larger heart-shaped basal leaves, however they are absent by the time it flowers.

On the Buchanan Trail
After playing around here for a long while, it was time to head back towards civilization. So, hopping back on Hacker's Trail, I headed for the Buchanan Trail which intersects within 0.5 m. This is the more heavily used route to reach the falls. However, before reaching the Buchanan Trail, take note that the falls are actually on a short side trail off of Hackers Trail, so within just 0.1 m, expect to reach an intersection with Hacker's Trail and turn right. Follow this 0.5 m and then turn left onto the orange-blazed Buchanan Trail which leads through sandy woods and past a meadow of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Red Clover (Trifolium pratense), Goldrod (Solidago spp.), Daisies (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum), and Thistle (Circium spp.)  The Buchanan Trail will then lead 0.4 m to the parking area at Cliff Park off of Route 2001. Once here, I felt I had appreciated my feet enough and so called home for a ride. Although, I wouldn't want to wish my car into the shop again anytime soon, what a perfect way to spend the day.

Check out this link for a map of this area:

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Fresh Trail in the Milford Experimental Forest

Freshly cut trail in the Milford Experimental Forest
During the Festival of Wood two weekends ago I had the pleasure of getting to know and then sharing freshy cut trail within the Milford Experimental Forest. The house in which I grew up and am presently residing sits just outside the boundary of this 1,200 acre wood on Schocopee Road. If you've been following my blogs for the last few years, you have probably already seen mention of this land on numerous occasions. These are the woods in which I first came to love the out of doors, its plants, its animals, and the feeling of the dirt on my skin.

The Sawkill Stream leaving the swamp that can be found at the connecting point of the two main trails in the Milford Experimental Forest
There are, however, few trails through these woods. I usually always followed the course of the Sawkill Stream to keep direction or simply wandered off the gravel road that dissects the property and hoped for the best, either running into the stream or a familiar jumble of rocks or a sideways bending tree that told me where I was. The gas pipeline, as unromantic as that sounds, has always been one established "trail" that could be followed through here as well as a four-wheeler trail that ran alongside it that wasn't officially maintained until about 15 years ago, when Peter Pinchot opened the land up to public use. Before this, it was exclusive property of the Pinchot family, although Peter was always generous with allowing his neighbors to enjoy the land, neverminding my friends and I camping and exploring as we wished, my mother and I taking walks with the dogs, and giving my father permission to hunt turkey.

A rock cairn marking the trail
And so now, there is a second true trail. This new trail does not yet have a name but I think it needs one. Being that at its one terminus are experimental plantings of American Chestnut saplings, I am unofficially deeming it: The Chestnut Trail. A group of volunteers led by Robert Remillard have been hard at work on this trail since last year and the work is evident. What is most pleasing to me is that this trail now connects with the first established trail by simply doing an easy rock-hop over the stream through the swamp. I now have a perfect 2.6 mile trail running loop, with just a short .07 miles of that on gravel road. The Chestnut Trail is also where I led the plant walk during the weekend festival.

Thank you to the families that attended the plant walk - the children were an absolute delight, so attentive and inquisitive! Also ,thank you to those that visited the Conservancy table and purchased books!

And although I know these woods well, I have even met a new plant face along this trail...

Water Pennywort (Hydrocotyle Americana)
I have been familiar with the coastal Pennywort (Hydrocotyle) species, Marsh Pennywort (H.umbellata) and Large-Leaf Pennywort (H.bonariensis) since my first hike on the MST, but never had I met Water Pennywort (H.americana). It is easily identified as a Pennywort with its roundish leaf bearing scalloped margins, tiny star-shaped flowers that grow from the leaf axils, and by the way in which the plant creeps. However, what does distinguish it from coastal Pennywort is that the leaf stem does not attach directly to the center of the underside of leaf, but rather attaches at its heart-shaped base. Also dissimilar, are its numerous leaves arranged alternately along the stem. Coastal Pennywort, although spreading by runners, bears only basal leaves.

Water Pennywort (Hydrocotyle Americana) growing plentiful amongst various Violets (Viola spp.), False Nettle (Pilea pumila), Rough Bedstraw (Galium asprellum), Northern Willow Herb (Epilobium glandulosum), and Wood Sorrel (Oxalis spp.)
This Pennywort likes to grow with its roots in the water or moist soil. I found it along a shallow creek atop which had been laid several flat rocks for walking. This little nook is one of the richest habitats I've found along this new trail. Unfortunately, I have researched every plant book I have and done several google searches and can find no record of it being used as food...however also no record of it being poisonous. Therefore, I may just have to nibble a little bit of leaf and see how it goes. If this is an edible green growing abundantly from the pristine waters, I can't let it go to waste!

Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata) flower
Another intriguing plant that has made its home here is Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata).
It was once used widely in herbal medicine as a deobstruant (the action of breaking up stagnation/obstructions) and has the unique ability to enhance the actions of other herbs. It also has a history of use by Native Americans as a purgative. Lobeline opens the lungs and respiratory system allowing for deeper breathing, relaxes the nervous system, and can also induce vomiting therefore acting as a detox. When the leaves are chewed it has a similar taste to tobacco and a relaxing effect, therefore it could be used as a tobacco substitute.

The inflated seed pods of Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata)
The whole flowering plant may be used as medicine, although the seeds are the most potent. Contraindications are "feeling spacy" or nausea, the latter which can be prevented by taking as tincture as opposed to a tea. As a tincture, use only small amounts (5-15 drops) to treat illness. If this dosage does not affect the individual, then this medicine simply may not be what's needed.

Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera)
And of course, how could I not mention the abundance of Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera)! To find this delicious edible, you may have to venture left at the fork, heading towards a deer exclosure, just as the Chestnut Trail begins. Here there are abundant communities of this little flower to be found growing in the tall grasses. It seemed so long since I had seen Chickweed in flower, however not yet close enough to Fall to be expecting a second flowering, so I was rather excited to find these healthy beauties. The entire above-ground-parts are edible (leaves, stems, and flowers). Try them tucked into sandwiches and wraps or tossed in salads. They are light and crisp and easy to identify with their opposite leaves, 5 deeply cleft white petals (giving the appearance of 10), and black-tipped conspicuous stamen.