Notes from nature – the trees of Stittsville

(Kemp Forest. All photos: Jessie Lozanski)

As the holiday season descends upon us, trees come to the forefront of many households’ thoughts. Of course these are Christmas trees (which hail from a variety of species) and when standing in our living room full of decorations it can sometimes be difficult to remember that our holiday traditions are tied to the natural world. With that in mind, this December we will explore some of Stittsville’s trees and the connections that have been formed between these giant plants and humanity throughout history.

Right in the heart of Stittsville you can find some of the last of a dying species- butternut trees. Next to the Johnny Leroux Arena along Poole creek are a few specimens of Juglan cinerea, commonly known as butternut or white walnut. They are tall and stately trees that can be recognized in winter by their grey bark with flat topped ridges. Another identifier are black sooty patches along the bark that are actually evidence of the disease butternut canker that is clearing this species off the planet. Butternut canker is a fungal infection that was first noticed in the 70s but has rapidly spread and killed off the majority of butternuts in North America. Unfortunately once a butternut has been infected with the canker there is no way for it to recover so conservation efforts are directed towards spreading seeds of healthy, disease resistant trees.

(Butternut tree Bark)

Before butternuts were infected with disease they were an incredibly widespread deciduous tree that have been used by people and wildlife for centuries. Indigenous inhabitants of North America used the nuts, bark, and wood for medicine, food, building materials, and dye for their clothing. They also used the toxic crushed fruits to stun fish in small streams. Later, colonizers adopted the butternut as a useful tree and many confederate soldiers received the nickname “butternuts” as they used the nuts to dye their uniforms during the Civil War. Butternut was also a favored wood for making furniture and cabinets and is likely to live on longer in colonial furniture than in our forests. Not long ago North America lost the iconic American chestnut to chestnut blight. Despite being once called the Redwood of the East due to their longevity (up to 500 years old) and impressive size, American chestnuts were labeled effectively extinct in the 1950s. Butternuts are looking at a similar fate but hopefully now with more tools and conservation efforts at our disposal we can prevent this species from going extinct. The Rideau Valley Conservation Authority, Forest Gene Conservation Association and Ottawa Stewardship Council all have programs in place in which you can volunteer to help butternut recovery. In the meantime head over to Johnny Leroux arena and take a look at a magnificent species that may disappear from our Canadian forests forever.

(A Butternut Tree)

Balsam Fir:
Balsam firs are a unique northern evergreen found along Stittsville’s moist creek banks and damp forests. Unlike other trees, Balsam firs have resin blisters on their bark that can pop when poked. These resin blisters have highly concentrated and nutritious sap that has been used by Indigenous people to cure colds, coughs, and heal sores ranging from itchy bug bites to burns. Tea made from Balsam fir needles is also renowned for its good flavor and high dosage of vitamin C. It has even been postulated that Balsam fir tea saved explorer Jacques Cartier and his crew from scurvy during his second expedition into Canada. Along with medicine and food, Balsam fir boughs were also prized for bedding and mats by Indigenous peoples and early settlers. White-tailed deer and grouse are common patrons of Balsam firs, deer using the boughs for shelter while the needles and buds make up 5-10 percent of a grouse’s fall and winter diet.

To identify a Balsam fir tree it is easy to spot their smooth gray trunks with blisters. As the tree ages the bark will become more brown and break into irregular chunks. Balsam fir needles are also flat and soft and have two white lines on the underside of each needle.

(The bark of the Balsam Fir tree.)

Stittsville is home to two different birch species- Yellow birch and Paper birch. The two birches can be distinguished by their differences in bark. Yellow birch has grey bark that peels off the tree in many small thin strips. Comparatively Paper or White birch has white bark that peels off in large thick strips. For both species, purposely peeling off the bark will damage the tree so if you are interested in using birch bark, try to find pieces that have already fallen off on the ground.

(The bark of the Yellow Birch tree.)

Yellow birch is a Northeastern tree species and has been used historically by Indigenous peoples for its sap which is much like maple sap used for syrup. It’s bark has also been used for medicinal purposes and for making storage containers. With colonization, Yellow Birch became eastern Canada’s most valuable hardwood lumber species due to its durability. In Stittsville you can see massive old growth Yellow birch trees in the Kemp Woodland.

(The bark of the Paper Birch tree.)

Paper birch spans across Canada and is the famous birch responsible for birch bark canoes. Birch bark is extremely durable so a range of Indigenous tribes across North America used it to create lightweight canoes. Some tribes also used Paper birch bark to act as casts for broken bones by tightly wrapping bark around the injury and heating it until the bark molded to the shape of the limb. Birch bark has also been widely employed for artistic purposes, often as the canvas for porcupine quillwork and birchbark biting art in which artists make intricate designs by biting folded pieces of birch. Wood from Paper birch was also put to use in a variety of ways including frames of snowshoes, toboggans, baskets, and cooking utensils. In our ecosystems Paper birch is a pioneer species meaning that after a disturbance like fire, Paper birch will be the first to colonize the area. Due to this nature, conservationists often employ Paper birch to reforest areas that have been impacted by human activity.


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