Big Trees - Celebrate Earth Day with a tour of giants at Prescott Farm

 

Prescott Farms Big Trees tours

April 22, June 24, Aug. 12 and Oct. 14

11 a.m. to noon

$10 at the door

prescottfarm.org (click education tab, then public programs)

 

By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN

LACONIA — There's a certain feeling that one gets when sharing space with a grand tree – a being that, more than a century ago at the least, germinated as a seed in fertile soil and sent forth its first leaf, then persevered despite competition from other trees, disease, pests and the various climactic curveballs of New England weather. It has been thriving since your grandparents were born, and it will likely still be standing well after you've passed.

"For me, and I think a lot of what we talk about on the Big Tree Tour, is a passage of time ... How much the world has changed in the course of its life. It puts into perspective everything. That's what I think about," said Jude Hamel, executive director of the Prescott Farm Environmental Education Center.

The nonprofit organization, located on the historic site of what was once a sprawling sheep farm on White Oaks Road, is offering a tour of its largest and most notable trees on Saturday, April 22, with tours departing at 11 a.m. and noon.

Prescott Farm's big tree tours, sponsored by Belknap Landscaping Company, will take visitors to eight of the property's more impressive trees. There will be stops at a 250-year-old red oak; two white ash trees, one that is bigger than the largest ash in two other New Hampshire counties, and another that is completely hollow yet survives; 225-year-old sugar maples; white and black birch trees, and a black walnut tree thought to be 130 years old. All of the ages of the trees are estimated based on the tree's characteristics.

The walnut tree was certified last year as the largest in Belknap County, though it's about half the size of the largest one in the state, found in Hopkinton.

"They're not especially common," Sarah Dunahm Miliotis, Prescott Farm's education director, said about the black walnut, which stands outside of the main farmhouse on the property, and the trunk of which measures about 7-and-a-half feet in diameter. While there's no direct evidence to support the theory, she strongly suspects that the Prescott family planted the tree in the late 19th century as a source of food. While the Prescotts no longer live there, the tree's nuts continue to be a valued source of food, as hundreds are found each year, freshly squirreled away in all corners of the large three-story barn.

Prescott Farm is asking for $10 for the tours. Those unable to attend on April 22 should mark their calendars for June 24, Aug. 12 and Oct. 14, when the tours will again be offered.

Of course, there are big trees outside of Prescott Farm as well. The UNH Cooperative Extension has been keeping track of the largest trees of each kind, and in each county, through its Champion Tree program. The list has captured the imagination of many volunteers, including Kevin Martin, a woodworker who makes wooden boats and canoes. 

"Through my work, I've always appreciated lumber from big trees," said Martin, who lives in Epping. As part of a conservation effort in the Lamprey River area, he was inspired to visit some of the larger trees on the parcel, where he began to appreciate how a particularly large tree can alter and improve the space it inhabits.

"It's a whole different environment standing under big trees," he said. Martin used his experience as a volunteer for the champion tree program to publish a book, "Big Trees of New Hampshire," which is now in its second printing.

Martin's book highlights trees that are both impressive examples of their species and are accessible to the general public. Central New Hampshire entries in the book include the Big Pines Natural Area in Tamworth, a pitch pine at the White Lake State Park in West Ossipee, and a Butternut along the Sandwich Notch Road in Sandwich. Each of his entries offers a narrative about the trees and the location, a map to help find the tree, as well as GPS coordinates. All of the trees in the book are likely well more than 100 years old, while some of them have been growing for several centuries.

Martin said that he's been pleased by the response that his book has enjoyed. He is planning to publish similar volumes for other New England states.

"People are always interested in big trees," Martin said. "Anyone who's interested in the natural world can appreciate how old it is, how long it took for it to get to the size that it is... really, how valuable they are."

Andy Fast, Belknap County forester for the UNH Cooperative Extension, sees the big tree program as way to get the general public more interested and knowledgeable in their natural surroundings. By getting to know these trees, and by understanding what they've been through to achieve their current stature, he hopes people will appreciate forests as dynamic, changing landscapes. 

"Any large tree has seen decades, or centuries, of wind," such as hurricanes, tornadoes and downbursts, said Fast, "fire, flooding, drought, insects, diseases and logging affect it or the trees around it."

A tree's tale, Fast continued, is in how a long string of large-scale events affected it, either causing hardship or injury, or by providing a competitive advantage.

"The story is in all the change that has occurred annually or over time – the ice storms of 1998 and 2008, gypsy moth outbreak of the early '80s, among other insect diseases that have occurred, fires of the '50s, the hurricane of 1938, land use patterns over the last few centuries. Any given site that I go to, we will see some influence of these specific events – or ones like them that shape the trees that are growing."

If observers gain a little bit of knowledge about common trees, the story begins to become apparent. For example, because Fast knows which trees require shade or bright light as saplings, he can imagine what a landscape looked like centuries ago based on which trees are dominant in the canopy.

"If you see a lot of large hemlock and beech, for instance, you have a pretty good idea that those trees, however old they are, got established in the shade of other trees. If you see older aspen and white birch, you know the area was very open at one point. You can look at stumps, cultural features (such as stone walls) to determine if an area was pastured, cultivated, et cetera. There are a number of good books and resources on understanding 'the story' of a particular tree or piece of land."

While Fast favors the scientist's approach, Martin enters forests as a philosopher. He encourages his readers to not only find and view the trees, but also to take some time to be with it. Sit under its branches, consider the air it produces, the storm water that it controls, the erosion that it prevents and the habitat that it supports. In doing so, one might experience calm, relaxation, even a sense of awe or wonder.

"You feel all of that when you are under the trees, and kind of contemplate your own life when you're there," he said.

 

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Jude Hamel, executive director of the Prescott Farm Environmental Education Center, views a black walnut that was recently certified as the largest of its kind in the state. Planted in the late 19th century, it was likely intended to be a food source for the family that planted it. Though they're long gone, the tree continues to shower the ground each year with nuts. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)

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An ash tree at Prescott Farm Environmental Center is completely hollowed, yet survives nonetheless. Sarah Dunham-Miliotis, the center's education director, suspects that, long ago, a fire damaged the tree near its base, allowing insects or disease to attack the tree's heartwood. The cavity is now large enough for an adult to stand inside. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)