The Urban Forest Micro Tension Zone & the 200 Year Woods

My last blog post was about the seasons within central New England’s autumn season and how that was likely driven by its Tension Zone, the area across central New England where more northerly trees either live side-by-side or within spitting distance from their more southerly cousins. Today we took a hike into a small patch of forest in Maynard, old mill town that is said to be the smallest town in Massachusetts. What I saw put a hyper-T on Tension Zone.

I was drawn to Summer Hill Woods for two reasons – the unusually steep topographic relief for the town of Maynard, the environment produced along Summer Hill Road just below Summer Hill, and two sentinel trees on Summer Hill Road that said to me there was something special up in those woods – a twisty oak on the N side of the road (could be 200+ yrs old) and a gnarly hickory on the other side of the road. Guess that is three reasons.

Anyhow, both trees have character and symbolize a southern forest in our midst.


The Oak-Hickory landscape in Summer Hill Woods

We hiked on the white trail from preserve entrance on Summer St. While the ground was frozen today, I would expect that during mud season and wet years the entrance is mucky.

Once we made it up past the old road, I had to stop and pause at what I was seeing: a young and nearly pure stand of yellow birch. This is a highly unusual thing. I can only remember one other similar forest. Making it more exceptional the habitat in Maynard does not seems central to its distribution. It wasn’t in a wetland or in higher elevation. This stand was on the northfacing slope of Summer Hill.

The shiny, fringed, and gold yellow birch bark was so beautiful in the clear January conditions:


We continued up towards the water towers and I started seeing a variety of oaks – white, red, black, and, perhaps, scarlet.

We made it to the stone wall near the water towers. The ‘wolf’ white oak tree caught my eye and I went to get a closer look:


A ‘wolf’ white oak tree

I could see this tree might have been an elder for the other white oaks in the forest, though I suspect there are other white oaks in Summer Hill Woods might be old, too.

On our way back to the trail, a sapling caught my eye. Upon closer inspection, I thought it to be a mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa).

We continued on and enjoyed the oak-hickory-pine forest.

At the intersection of the yellow and white trails, our son decided we would take the yellow trail. I’m glad he made that choice. It was on that trail where I saw a high density of what appears to be mockernut hickory. I’m not completely positive these hickories are mockernut. They are hard to identify in winter. And, there might be other hickories out there. I need to investigate again after budbreak.

Three stages of what I believe to be mockernut hickory, youngest to older going counterclockwise.

But, there are a lot of hickory out there, which, again, is an unusual thing for where we live. In fact, if you look at a map of the distribution of mockernut hickory, we are in the last major northeastern outlier portion of its distribution and, to me, look to be on the western edge of this outlier.

We continued on and saw a healthy oak-hickory forest, so something more like Virginia or North Carolina (though similar forests can be found in CT, NY, etc). But, on the south side of Summer Hill there is indeed a southern forest type, which is a special thing.

While I did not keep a list [was there to enjoy the day], but I think there are at least 12-16 major tree species there:

– 2 pine species
– 4 oak species
– 1-2 hickories
– 1-2 maples
– 2-3 birch
– ash
– American beech

I am pretty sure I saw some elm trees and hophornbeam. This is a special forest in terms of diversity and the type of species present.

Some white oaks along this portion of the yellow trail caught my eye. Their smooth bark suggests they could be old.


Smooth bark on a white oak. Could it be 200+ yrs old?

While hiking, the idea “200 Year Woods” kept coming to mind. Some trees could be 200 years old. But, with the composition and age of some of the trees, many of the trees today could easily live another 200 years. It is a very special forest and I look forward to exploring it more.

2 thoughts on “The Urban Forest Micro Tension Zone & the 200 Year Woods

  1. It’s always fun and refreshing to see an unusual forest type where you don’t expect it. And I think mockernut is a good call for that hickory (though I don’t really know whats in those parts. A few years ago I found a confusing hickory in McCreary county that loozed like mockernut or pignut (both where in the stand, along with shagbark), but wasnt quite. Found a nut and figured out it was a sand hickory, which I’d never seen before. The hickories were pushing 200 years. The stand got logged by USFS. We were able to get a less aggressive logging prescription in that stand but not completely save it. The forester left many of the big hickories as a result of our conversations but I haven’t been able to figure out of that sand hickory is still out there.


    • Hi Jim,

      I agree. I love these kinds of surprises. I do think it is mockernut. It is a species that tripped me up quite some time ago, but then became a species I wanted to make sure I knew better. Love the name, too. Had read once the first nation people named it that [someone a long time ago, anyhow]. The nuts are often empty, so they mock you [something like that]. It has become one of those species where you go through the checklist and then go, “huh, bet it is mockernut.” Having said that, its bark is quite distinctive in its color and structure when young – the ridges look like it was a steely, blue-grey metal and then underwent a quick, gentle melt. I hadn’t seen the more mature bark in a while, but do recall it can get quite rough, rougher than pignut. I’m pretty sure I saw some rachises [what’s the plural of rachis?…yup, rachises] that looked awfully hairy and the twigs were stout’ish. I just want to be absolutely sure in the spring. It was quite a surprise and want to be absolutely sure.

      Sand hickory! I haven’t knowingly seen that since about 1995, the first time I saw it in the field while working and ID’ed it. This was in SW Georgia. I don’t remember its characteristics so much other than the core we took of it was the stinkiest hickory core I ever pulled. Fermented barn floor is the best I can say. It smelled like sh*t.

      Luckily for hickories, I think they get left behind often. Thank you for pushing the managers to go lighter.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s