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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11 Responses to “the wolf tree”

  1. Cathy Says:

    There is a universal sense of awe we experience on encountering something of immense age – particularly when it is a living organism. I’ve held very ancient granite in my hands – but a tree – what is it that makes us want to leave a handful of grass or lean close and listen for ancient wisdom or echoes of the passerbys of previous centuries? Yep. The brain is very, eerily wonderful.

  2. Ruth Says:

    A very interesting post. I will look at trees where I walk differently now. Would a maple this old still be able to be tapped for sap in the spring, or would it be decaying in the core? Your recent entries on trees would spark the imagination of any writer who would give them a personality and a real brain.

  3. LauraH Says:

    I was thinking of you and your tree measuring efforts the other day at our visit to Longwood Gardens in PA – some very old and large trees on the grounds there.

    I’ve never heard of a wolf tree before.

  4. burning silo Says:

    Cathy – I very much like that “brain” up in the tree. There’s something kind of cool about the idea of it being more than just a weird growth. I like holding stones and fossils, or putting my hands on a redwood tree, and then thinking about how much time has passed since they were created. It boggles the mind more than just a little.

    Ruth – I’ve seen very large old maples still being tapped, so I imagine they’re still quite healthy. The biggest reason for broken limbs on the Sugar maples of our area has to do with the ice storm in ’98. Many of the mature maples were either badly broken at the time, or have since lost weakened limbs. That has probably resulted in the death of some trees due to invasion by disease and insects.

    Laura – I love to find “old trees” wherever we travel. I’ll bet there are some beautiful ones in PA. What’s neat is to find old ones of species that I’m not familiar with – such as finding some big Madrones in California and S. Oregon, or some neat Palo verde and Manzanitas in Arizona. Trees provide yet one more way to connect to place.

  5. Wayne Says:

    That’s a magnificent sugar maple, and the enormous burl is quite a surprise and certainly does invoke a brain!

    I’ve been thinking about the notion of wolf trees since you posted this, Bev. It seems that I’ve heard the term before but it somehow got covered over with other stuff. My first thoughts, before reading the forestry’s explanation were more along the lines of “loner” than of “pest” or “thief”. Of course wolves are no more loners than they are pests or thieves!

    We may have two or three wolf trees. The black walnut we’ve talked about is certainly one. It also has the added feature of being a poisonous wolf, but despite that there is a functional ecology beneath and around its spreading branches. There’s a ring of hackberries, perhaps a half dozen, fairly large, that grow well within the walnut’s crown. The hackberries all lean outward, clearly growing toward the sun but resembling more a processional retinue. Could they be called “jackal trees”?

  6. burning silo Says:

    Wayne – I thought “loner” too, but I can also see how it could have another meaning. The black walnut sounds as though it definitely falls into the category of a wolf tree. Maybe the hackberries could be considered wolf pups, but jackal trees also works for me. (-:

  7. Ann Getsinger Says:

    A few years ago I did an oil painting called Pumpkin and Wolf Pine, so named after a story told to me by an old timer out here in western Massachusetts. He said that back when everyone had a woodlot (or when the woods were logged for one reason or another, i.e. charcoal, etc.) people would leave a nice big tree up near the ridgelines in order that it’s seeds or cones would roll or blow downhill and re-seed the forest. In that case the term “wolf” might have referred to the imagery associated with a lone wolf up on a high place howling to his fellow wolves.

  8. burning silo Says:

    Ann – Thanks for adding yet another note regarding Wolf trees. I think it’s great to hear about traditions in various parts of the countryside – and also find that so many are similar.

  9. Azur Moulaert Says:

    Wolf trees are a rather common occurence in the Vermont landscape. Alas the wolves are long gone. We use to have sheep throughout the state now that industry is no more. Here’s a photo of a tree I found over the weekend. It is curious how there are not that many references on the web. We should start posting them here.

  10. Azur Moulaert Says:

    For a recent photo I took check here:

  11. bev Says:

    Hello Azur — I tried to view your photo, but it took me to the start of your Picasa gallery and a slide show. Unfortunately, I have such a bad internet connection that I couldn’t get the slide show to work. If you can post the URL directly to the tree photo, I can probably see it. You are right about there being few references to wolf trees on the net. I looked around for them, but the term doesn’t seem to be used very much — perhaps because it’s one of those vanishing words that is losing its meaning in our time — which is too bad.