Hunting for the American Chestnut in the Wissahickon

Posted 8/27/20

We found a black-staining polypore fungus beneath an old oak trunk on the hill directly above Valley Green Inn. The underbrush was thick, mostly spicebush and angelica saplings. My friend Peter …

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Hunting for the American Chestnut in the Wissahickon

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We found a black-staining polypore fungus beneath an old oak trunk on the hill directly above Valley Green Inn. The underbrush was thick, mostly spicebush and angelica saplings.

My friend Peter Lapham and I set out recently to explore the Wissahickon Forest on the hillside overlooking Valley Green Inn. We knew that the 1868 Survey of Wissahickon Creek showed that the largest bit of existing forested land at that time was above the inn. We also knew that my great uncle Cornelius Weygandt had written in 1930 about this area in his classic book, The Wissahickon Hills: “There still flourishes…back of Valley Green Hotel a stand of very old white oaks…Higher up the hill are several score more great oaks, some of them white oaks and some of them black oaks. There are beeches among them and a few tulip poplars and there once were many chestnuts.

The most of these, now dead of course, still stand, reduced to their main limbs but upright. It would seem that this wood must be a remnant of the virgin forest of the hills. The trees are not in close ranks, but there are a few of them of a widespread. It would seem that they are those that were left when the largest trees of the aboriginal forest were cut out for use by the early settlers on the hills. There are plenty of trees here eighty feet tall and two feet in diameter, and there are some even taller and thicker.”

With Weygandt’s description in mind, Peter and I took the path up the hill that begins west of the inn and connects to the Yellow Trail. We were hoping eventually to spot some live American chestnut shoots growing where the chestnut trees Weygandt described once grew.

We walked into the steep hillside woods looking first for the large white and black oaks Weygandt described, but we didn’t spot any large trees except for tuliptrees. We could have missed the oaks, though, because the undergrowth was thick, mostly a mixture of spicebush and Japanese angelica-tree saplings. Not a fan of the angelica-tree, I was not happy to find this aggressive exotic sprouting almost everywhere as we progressed slowly up the hill above the inn. As we continued climbing, our most arresting discovery was a large mushroom, a Meripilus sumstinei (commonly called the black-staining polypore), growing at the base of dead tree trunk, probably a black oak.

Eventually we reached the area that we thought Weygandt had referred to as “a remnant of the virgin forest.” We were disappointed not to find any large oaks there, just more tulip trees, and no chestnut twigs sprouting from old stumps. Peter and I have encountered several such chestnut sprouts and even a fruiting specimen in Carpenter’s Woods, so we were hopeful of finding them where Weygandt had reported some chestnut trees. But if any sprouts were present, thickets of spicebushes and angelica-trees were hiding them.

We turned back and headed northeast until we reached a section of the Yellow Trail overlooking the steep slope stretching down to Wise’s Mill Road. Here the look of the forest was much changed. Gone was the thick, obscuring understory. Gone were most of the tulip trees. Here the trees were chestnut oaks, red oaks, and black oaks shading bare ground punctuated in places with small chestnut oak saplings. Without any understory to speak of, we could see all the way down to the stream bordering Wise’s Mill Road. This north-facing hillside must have once been densely covered with hemlocks, but the wooly adelgid apparently killed them all. We scrambled down the hill to Forbidden Drive and walked back to the inn parking lot, thinking that we would have to search for chestnut sprouts another day.

tree-talk

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