Tree drama

Featured Online First The Local Climate

My favourite tree is probably the American beech, not because it’s the tallest or longest lived member of Maritime ecology, but because it’s beautiful, and comes with a compelling history.

At one time the majority of Maritime trees were American beech, so astoundingly common that before the 20th century hikers of all stripes were overwhelmed by its ubiquitous porcelain white bark and stately green canopies. They supplied native wildlife with enough nuts to constitute a force of nature, until, at least, we messed everything up.

This king among trees was dethroned in 1890, when someone thought it would be fun to plant European beech among the exotic wonders of the Halifax Public Gardens. Predictably, an invasive insect known as the Beech Scale hitched a ride on these European beech on their way across the Atlantic Ocean and promptly began an assaulting of our unprepared American beech.

This invasive, sap-sucking insect wounds the bark of our American beech so thoroughly that these trees cannot defend themselves against the native fungus Neonectria, resulting in infection. This manifests as a black rot which either kills beech outright or disfigures them, stunting their growth and compromising their reproductivity. The deadly pairing of invasive insect and native fungus causes this so-called Beech Bark Disease, sweeping the Maritimes in short order and reducing a once common tree to the status of a leper, unable to compete with other trees and sinking into ugly obscurity.

You can still find American beech; they’re not uncommon but they are grotesque, lacking in any of the majesty which once defined their reign, but something extraordinary happened. Surveys revealed that 3.3 per cent of our regional American beech remained inexplicably unscathed, growing in the aftermath of Beech Bark Disease with no apparent difficulty, falling for neither insect nor fungus. Closer examination of these surviving few uncovered a quirk in their bark chemistry which made them lethal to the Beech Scale, and thus immune to the Beech Bark Disease.

These 3.3 per cent were scattered across the Maritimes and would take quite some time to repopulate on their own, so the Canadian Forest Service (CFS) stepped in to speed things up. Using facilities in New Brunswick they began taking grafts from these surviving trees and growing a new generation of immune beech, perhaps for mass replanting, perhaps for distribution to nurseries across our region. The American beech was fast approaching rebirth.

But then, in 2011, the Harper Government made tragic cuts to biodiversity programs across the country, obliterating the staff and resources then dedicated to the recovery of this species. I’ve spoken to several people active at the time, and heard of the desperation which dominated those dark days. There was no time to put these sapling beech to proper use; there was only time to save them from the realities of cut budgets. Essentially overnight these trees were given away to Parks Canada and planted in three discrete locations where they root to this day, out of sight – Kejimkujik, Fundy and PEI national parks.

Since 2011 there has been no significant push from government to pick up this rescue where it left off; in fact the ordeal seems to have disappeared from active memory, except for those few who lived it. I found one of these immune beech groves by chance in PEI National Park, its few dozen trees radiant in the summer sun and destined for unseen greatness. When I asked park staff about the grove, not one of them knew what I was talking about.

The American beech was once our finest tree, and came so tantalizingly close to reclaiming its stolen kingdom I get fired up just thinking about it, but alas, politics prevailed, and we forfeited our chance at remediation, the products of our brush with sanity all but forgotten. Maybe someday we will come to grips with what we’ve lost, and task these young trees with the rescue of their species. Maybe.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.

Shown above is a grove of American beech in PEI National Park. (Zack Metcalfe photo)