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Title: The Ents of Flummerfelt - a tale of tree
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Registered: 11/21/2008

(Date Posted:01/25/2009 00:55 AM)
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The Ents of Flummerfelt - a tale of tree
John Kinnear

To the beeches of Neldoreth I came in the Autumn
Ah! the gold and the red and the sighing leaves in the Autumn in Taur-na-neldor!
It was more than my desire

J.R.R. Tolkien

So sang the giant Ent, Treebeard, the oldest being in Middle Earth, as he carried the hobbits Pippin Took and Merry Brandybuck on his branches into the Fangorn forest. When I walk among the ancient cottonwoods in Flummerfelt Park I feel like I am among Treebeard’s kin and that their creaking and moaning in the ever-present wind is in fact heir whispers to each other. Stand at the ancient base of one, look up and imagine.

I grew up amongst these cottonwoods, climbed their gnarly old branches and slept under their massive shade on hot summer days. Last September as we all witnessed the unprecedented 9-11 snowstorm that stripped our trees so ruthlessly, the old Ents of Flummerfelt stood their ground. The park looked like a bomb had gone off that Sunday morning. It was most disheartening but as the season of renewal returns to this beloved place it is good to see these old giants preparing to leaf out again. Old soldiers standing guard at the entrance to the Miner’s Path. There may very well be trees there over a hundred years old.

Fifteen kilometres south of Fernie, just north of the Morrissey Bridge on the east side of the Elk River one can find some of Canada’s oldest cottonwoods. Some have remained rooted in the same area for as long as 400 years and Michael Phillips, discoverer of the Crows Nest Pass, passed by them in 1873 on his way up Morrissey Creek. There are younger versions of these Morrissey old-timers scattered throughout the Elk Valley and they have taken up residence all along the Elk River. Their Latin name is “populus trichocarpa” but we know them as black cottonwoods. You know, the ones that make it snow in June!

The ancient Morrissey cottonwoods are a remarkable bunch in that they have survived for so long. Anyone who has grown up around these trees knows that sooner or later wind and time takes them out. When an old cottonwood hits the ground it virtually disintegrates, as it is usually rotten in the middle. Somehow a small cathedral of these trees has endured the forces of nature for hundreds of years in spite of being right at the east edge of the Elk River.

Mary Louise Polzin from Baynes Lake can probably be considered a resident expert on these monsters. She recently completed her masters thesis which dealt with these amazing cottonwoods and the impact the ‘95 flood had or didn’t have on them. Mary Louise literally overwhelmed me with Latin names and subspecies descriptions of the populus family which is extremely complicated due to the fact that populus will hybridize at the drop of a hat.

Tree coring for age of one of the largest trees out there by Polzin revealed that it had been around for at least 400 years, a conservative estimate she tells me considering its rotten core. It is 9.8 meters (32 feet) in circumference and will leave you shaking your head in amazement. While cottonwoods have been known to reach over 150 feet in height their heights versus their diameters generally don’t relate. Big old cottonwood tops are repeatedly decapitated by lightning and wind, a fact that has kept the Morrissey giants from standing out visually amongst all the other secondary growth around them.

Trichocarpa is a member of the ‘populus” family, one that also includes willows and alders. They are known as pioneer species, that is, the first to move in on new bare ground, something that shifting river courses are good at making.

According to Polzin black cottonwoods belong to a Section called “tachamahaca” (now there’s a great word) and include black cottonwoods, balsam poplars, narrow-leaf cottonwoods and 9 other species not found in North America. At one time they were classified as a subspecies of P. balsamifera (balsam poplar) a tree that was once one of the most widely distributed of the Canadian forest. They could be found coast to coast and as far north as the tundra. When Alexander Mackenzie was exploring the upper reaches of the Peace River in 1793 he encountered a dozen or so different species of trees one of which he noted in his diary as a “liard”. As a Highland Scot he was no doubt unfamiliar with the flora and relied on the French Canadianvoyageurs travelling with him for its name. The tree he noted as liard was in fact a balsam poplar. In old French liard means grey (liard pears are grey). It could be that the tree was named so because the balsam turns grey as it matures. The barks of the Morrissey giants are almost white now and when sunlight filtering through the canopy hits them they light up in a spectacular and almost ethereal way.

Historically the First Nation’s people found a variety of uses for members of populus. Young saplings were made into sweathouses, their proximity to rivers and streams proving quite handy for that activity. Saplings were also woven into baskets and the white seed floss that we curse was used for stuffing bedding. The cambium layer of younger trees proved to have medicinal properties when chewed, the willow having the highest concentration of what is probably acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin).

According to Stewart Rood, a tree specialist at the University of Lethbridge, cottonwoods:” provide distinctive structural and habitat diversity in riparian woodlands.” Rood stated recently in a Calgary Herald article that:” cottonwood forests are the richest wildlife habitats on the continent” and that:” three quarters of bird species in southern Alberta require cottonwood forests for some part of their life cycle.” It is my observation that arboreal birds like flickers and woodpeckers love them and it is not unusual to see a dozen nest holes in the blunted top of one.
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