the wolf tree

Last Sunday, we spent a couple of hours hiking around at the Ferguson Forestry Centre in Kemptville, Ontario. I’ve mentioned this forest occasionally as we often hike there. Parts of it consist of seedling plantations, but also several stands of seed tree pines, most of which were probably planted in the 1940s and 50s. There is also quite an extensive area of mixed hardwood forest with some outstanding trees of many species. There are a number of walking trails winding throughout the center, so one can wander about for a good 3 or more hours without having to walk the same trail.

As part of our tree measuring project, we’ve been picking a tree or two to measure on each outing. The above tree has been on my mental “to do” list for a few weeks. It’s an immense Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) next to one of the paths. In this region, such huge trees are known as wolf trees. I wasn’t certain if this term was in widespread use, so I did a bit of looking around online. The first direct reference I came upon was this one that appears to be from The Language of Landscape, by Ann Whiston Spirn. After a little more checking around, it appears that the term is, indeed, in use many places.

The forestry center has posted a sign beside this tree, explaining the term wolf tree. It states:

Wolf trees have broad, spreading crowns that dominate the area of ground lying within their shade. These trees monopolize the available light, water and nutrients for their own use at the detriment of other nearby trees. This large maple tree also survived a disturbance that opened up a clearing in the forest around it.

This area was once a pasture. This maple tree was left behind and thus had an advantage over the next generation of trees. Like the “seed tree,” wolf trees periodically produce a large seed crop, creating an area dominated by saplings of their own species. Eventually the wolf tree will die but, over time and through the process of natural selection, two or three saplings will survive to become mature trees. Woodlot improvement cuttings will normally remove most of these trees to release better quality trees for the future harvest.

Wolf trees were named at a time when wolves were believed to be thieves and pests. Some misunderstandings about the animal remain but its now understood that wolves are not the terrible scourge they were once believed to be.

In this region, many wolf trees happen to be Sugar Maples, as these would be left standing for shade in pasture, and to tap for maple syrup each spring. I used to visit an older farmer in this area who had several of these trees along his lane and in the fields surrounding the house and barns. He also tapped an extensive sugar bush, but when he got on in years, he could only tap the trees he could get to easily, so it was the big wolf maples around his house that supplied most of the sap to be boiled each spring. I wrote a short story about one of my visits, so perhaps I’ll post that here on my blog sometime very soon.

As for the above tree, as you can see, it’s quite large. Circumference was 178 inches, which works out to about 56 inches diameter (DBH). At a growth factor of 5.0, the above wolf tree might be somewhere around 280 years old – which would predate most European settlement in this region. A couple of the upper limbs have come down in recent years, greatly altering sections of the canopy. That’s one of the limbs on the ground in front of Sabrina, which should give you some idea of the size of this tree. The canopy is large and spreads far out from the base of the tree. My guesstimate is that the tree is somewhere about 90 feet tall with a canopy about 80 feet across. As mentioned, there are several missing sections of limbs, so it’s kind of difficult to say how big this tree was before parts of it broke away.

This tree also has a most interesting burl not too far above the ground. The burl has grown where a limb must have once broken away. It’s rather a bizarre one. I’d have to say it’s almost brain-like in shape and even in some of the grain patterning (see below – click on image for larger view). I regard old trees such as the above and the oracle tree Wolf maple at Charleston Lake, as repositories of history and perhaps the natural wisdom of the forest, so I kind of like the idea of an ancient tree with a large brain, don’t you?

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