Monday, February 20, 2012

Life of a Hickory Tree Part 3

This is part three and the last post of the Life of a Hickory Tree.

As the hickory slowly grows it develops a hard strong wood.  While this wood structure helps the tree survive drought and windy conditions, it also makes it highly useful to humans.  Hickory is well known for making strong tool handles.  Native Americans frequently made bows and arrows from the wood.  Settlers also used it to make wagon wheels, skis, and old fashion golf clubs.  It is also great fire wood being its dense wood burns long and hot making great charcoal.  This extremely useful wood made the hickories some of the first to be cut down by early settlers.  Even today hickory is used in making tools, all kinds of wood craft, and for smoke curing meats.  In my opinion, hickory smoked meats really are some of the best tasting!

As the shagbark hickory grows it develops a tall straight trunk and often columnar shaped tree.  Oak trees are often spreading, making them especially adapted to growing in grasslands where they can spread their branches horizontally to gather light and there is little competition with nearby trees shading them.  Hickories with their narrower more columnar shape are more of a woodland species grow up towards sunlight as they compete with nearby trees.  As the hickory slowly grows it loses its ability to re-sprout if damaged by fire.  Larger trees however are increasingly resistant to fire as they grow.  This fire resistance though is nothing compared to oaks thick insulating bark and large hickories still can only tolerate very low intensity ground fires.  If larger trees are exposed to higher intensity fires, even if the flames do not initially kill the tree, damaged cambium becomes highly prone to rot which can subsequently kill the tree. 
For the first 20 to 30 years of life, the shagbark produces a beautifully smooth, gray bark.  This bark is very thin and even a very shallow cut into it will produce the green cambium.  As the tree ages though the bark becomes increasingly scaly, rough, and a gray-black color.  A much harder and slightly thicker layer of bark covers the trunk.  By the time the tree reaches 30 years of age the bark begins to fissure and flake outwards, producing the classic shaggy bark these trees are known for.  I have never heard anything about the fire resistance of this shaggy character of bark but I suspect it catches fire relatively well and it part of the reason these trees are not very fire resistant.  The shaggy bark is so easily recognizable and memorable that once told, even a child can easily identify the tree.  The flaky bark also is quite useful as a hiding place for insects and a roosting location for bats.  The fact that many bugs hide among the shaggy bark benefits many species of insect loving birds that search out the flakes and crevices for dinner.  Shagbark hickory is such an important bat roosting location that when mature shagbarks are logged a bat population can nearly disappear.  Some birds, such as the brown creeper, also nest under bark flakes.  Humans also prior to 1900 or so utilized the inner bark to produce a yellow dye.  Today, a few people in the east boil the bark with sugar in a secret process to produce shagbark hickory syrup which some claim puts maple syrup to shame. 
The shaggy bark of this hickory provides homes for many insects as well as some birds and bats.  
Around 40 years of age the shagbark begins to produce larger mast crops.  Large mast production occurs every one to five years depending on spring weather conditions.  Animal populations typically fluctuate along with large oak and hickory mast years.  In years with large mast production there is a large amount of food to go around for deer, bear, turkey, woodpeckers, ducks, and jays.  As a result these animals will often produce many young and the population will grow.  Years with low mast crops will result in little food allowing fewer wildlife offspring to survive therefore causing populations to shrink.  Though inconsistent in production and causing the rise, fall and rise again, in many animal populations, the overall benefit of these mast producing trees is huge.  Other trees, such as maples, produce huge numbers of seeds every year but benefit wildlife populations little in comparison of the oaks and hickories. 
The hickory can continue to grow and produce mast until about 200 years of age, after that most trees begin to decline.  Maximum lifespan is likely between 200 and 300 years.  At these old ages the hickory has become a tall straight tree of 70 to 80 feet tall.  Canopy width is typically about half or less of their height.  At this stage in life the shagbark has become a stately tree.  The long flakes of shaggy bark make these trees presence in the woodland clear.  Dark colored and straight trunks with their beautiful dark green foliage make these trees stately columns.  In spring these leaves burst forth from large scarlet colored leaf buds.  In fall the bright yellow leaves are a strong contrast against the more drab yellow and reds of neighboring oaks.  Though smaller, shorter lived, and less common than the oak, the hickory is a cornerstone tree to Midwestern and Eastern woodlands.  It is unfortunate it often takes a backseat to oaks being it is such a magnificent tree in itself.  

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