Sunday, November 26, 2017

Big Trees

This is the time of year when big canopy oaks really shine: their wide crowns tower above the trees around them, their fall color glowing deep browns and burgundies in the sunshine. I decided that I wanted to find some while the color was good. With the amount of development in our area, being able to find accessible big trees can be tough. I remembered one public place where I’ve seen a lot of big oaks: Big Trees Forest Preserve in Sandy Springs.

For several years now I’ve led a winter field trip to Big Trees in January for the Georgia Botanical Society. The point of the trip is woody plant identification; the place is loaded with different native shrub and tree species. It also has some invasive woody plants which we point out in the interest of education since these are common invasive plants found throughout the metro area. This was going to be a chance for me to see these plants with their leaves on (mostly).

Big Trees is a 30-acre sanctuary that was assembled beginning in 1990 to save some beautiful trees from nearby development. You can learn more about the history and John Ripley Forbes, the man who started it, here. Big Trees has a system of trails and, if you plan to go, I recommend that you download a copy of the trail map from here as local copies are not always available. Recent improvements include a bathroom at the entrance.

White oak (Quercus alba)
A group of large white oak (Quercus alba) trees can be found on the Big Trees Loop trail not far from the entrance. Shaggy bark is characteristic of this species, but one particular individual there has bark that is especially shaggy (and has been that way for years). White oak can also have beautiful fall leaf color and these trees were glowing in the bright fall sunshine.

From there I usually follow the Powers Branch trail to the Back 20 Connector and then follow the lower branch of the Backcountry trail. This takes you along a creek and through a gorgeous American beech forest (Fagus grandifolia) that was showing color from chalkbark maple (Acer leucoderme) and sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum). About halfway along the path, I take the short Spring Hollow trail to get back to the Powers Branch trail. This follows the gurgling stream back towards the entrance, crossing several bridges and hopping over some sturdy rocks (fun for kids). I passed one family teaching their kids how to skip rocks.

Chalkbark maple (Acer leucoderme)
Large white oaks continue to be a major part of the canopy, but some of the red oaks are there as well. Sourwood is also very common (which is awesome) and several species of hickory (Carya spp.) join the beeches in providing yellow color.

The shrub layer is still chiming in with a little color; I found mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), hearts a bustin’ (Euonymus americanus), highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), and the evergreen mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). 

American beech (Fagus grandifolia)
Several parts of the trail have non-native shrubs, most of which are evergreen: small-leaf privet (Ligustrum sinense), two species of Elaeagnus, small-leaf Japanese holly (Ilex crenata). Bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maacki, perhaps) is gaining ground on the Big Trees Loop. Wisteria vine and the privet were cut back heavily at one point but they are returning.

Quercus alba
Sandy Springs has incredibly beautiful native oaks all along Roswell Road. I had to pull over several times to check out several especially colorful red oaks (I could not always determine if they were scarlet oaks or northern red oaks but the colors were intense!). I hope that more of them can remain in place over the years, but I doubt that they will be appreciated for what they are. Unfortunately, too many of our native trees are removed and then replaced with crape myrtles, Leland cypress, and other non-native trees. I saw one gorgeous white oak near baseball fields in Morgan Falls and they had planted non-native pistache (Pistacia chinensis) trees in front of it. As if they could compete!

Enjoy the fall color of the oaks while it lasts. Please spread the word that these big trees are specimens to be treasured. It takes a lifetime to grow one – it takes several lifetimes to appreciate them.

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