This Tulpehaking Nature Center exhibit opened to acclaim on February 23rd, but, due to Covid-19, has been closed since mid March. It now reopens with a virtual video. It is expected that the complementary activities, including walks and talks about trees, which were cancelled, will be rescheduled. Watch the marsh website for updates. www.abbottmarshlands.org.
The exhibition, Wisdom of Trees: the Art and Science of Trees, brings together two photographic visions of trees. One, by Patricia Bender, an artist, and the other, by Mary Leck, a botanist. Both have in common a long familiarity with trees, beginning when they were children, but their different perceptions of the world of trees provides interesting comparisons and invites an exploration on the part of the viewer, while hopefully also sparking a wider appreciation of trees and their roles.
Artists and scientists use observation and experimentation as tools, with surprisingly different outcomes. For example, the titles given to the images in this exhibition reflect what is personally important to each exhibitor about the trees they photographed. Patricia has chosen to title her images after the myriad lessons she has learned from trees over her many years of living among them and photographing them. In contrast, Mary provides both common names and scientific names, feeling that those names tell something important about each species.
The journey of exploring the intricacies of trees and bark in preparation for this exhibit has raised many questions and provided insights about these living beings that dominate our landscape. Patricia suggests that you should always remember to look up to discover the details of leaves and branches against the sky and how adjacent trees appear to relate to one another, even to communicate. For Mary, there is magic to be found in bark textures, patterns, and colors and in the diversity that exists among the trees that grow in New Jersey. The bark patterns that occur are caused by tree growth, both in diameter and circumference – but how that is translated by the growing tree depends on its DNA and is the end product of millions of years of evolution. Each tree species response is informed by what it “learned,” including characteristics of the cells that make up its living and nonliving tissues.
The bark of American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis here withWreath Lichen Phaeophyscia rubropulchra), Two-wing Silverbell (Halesia diptera), and River Birch (Betula nigra) offer a sampling of the varied bark forms. Even within a type, e.g, plates, peeling in horizontal strips, or ridges and furrows, there can be considerable variation.
In addition, there can be more than one type of variation for a species. For example, in White Pine (Pinus strobus) young bark has plates, while old bark has furrows. This makes identification by bark challenging.
In a second theme of this exhibition we explored connections. This is seen in some of Patricia’s photographs where trees are in close proximity, and the inquiring mind wonders if they are communicating. Current research suggests that they are — communicating in their own “tree language” both above and below the ground.
Connections certainly exist between the green photosynthetic leaves and the rest of the living parts of her trees.
Connections may also occur, by way of root grafts, either with other trees of the same species or between species. Connections may involve a mychorrhizal fungus partner. These symbiotic mychorrizal associations provides the tree with soil nutrients, such as phosphorous, that are available from a broader area than that covered by roots. The fungus, in turn, has available nutrients provided by the green trees via photosynthesis. Some are extraordinarily complex; one study found an individual plant to have 15 or more fungal partners.
These connections may be extensive. A colony of 47,000 Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) trees in Utah, the result of root sprouts, covers 106 acres and is estimated to be 80.000 years old. (Single trees are short lived, ranging from 60 years to a maximum of 200 years).
Supportive connections from undamaged trees can be found after logging or natural disasters where a living tree can support another whose photosynthetic crown has been removed. In a partially logged stand of evergreens on Vancouver Island, evidence of such root grafts was found more than 22 years after logging, where 45% of stumps showed growth and 23% showed vigorous growth.
Mychorrhizal fungi are important to 80% of plant species. These symbiotic associations between the roots of plants and fungi involve nearly all plants. Exceptions include mustards (Brassicaceae), Chenopods (Chenopodiaceae), sedges (Cyperaceae), some Amaranths (Amaranthaceae), and a few others.
Some connections can be complex. The Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), a flowering plant that has no chlorophyll, cannot make its own food photosynthetically from sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide. It is dependent on an intermediary mychorrhizal fungus that is also mycorrhizal on a live photosynthethic tree, such as beech. That tree provides the Indian Pipe with nutrients for its growth, flowering, and reproduction. This arrangement, with a fungal intermediary is called epipararastitism.
There are myriad other connections between trees and other species. For example, trees are dependent on pollinators, including insects and other animals, and dispersal agents that are often mammals or birds, but sometime turtles pitch in too.
Some of a tree’s experiences are recorded in its growth patterns. A pine tree produces one ring of branches each year, an easy way to get its approximate age. Yearly patterns of growth in temperate areas may also be found recorded in annual rings of the wood. The cells produced in spring, when there is ample water, are large; those produced later are small. The thickness of an annual ring indicates how favorable growing conditions were the year the cells were produced.
Cross section of an Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) tree with various parts, including an annual ring, labeled. Increase in girth and circumference occurs by cell divisions in the vascular cambium and cork cambium.
Other tree experiences are expressed as its responses to environmental conditions, including its tolerance to changes in rainfall and temperatures, its production of flowers and seeds, the thickness of its bark, and its growth rate. What the tree is, does, and tolerates is informed by its life and evolutionary history.
A further theme of this exhibition is reproduction. Some trees are wind pollinated (Hazelnut, Corylus; Alder, Alnus) while others are insect pollinated, including Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). The Magnolia (e.g., Magnolia grandiflora), an insect pollinated tree, has flowers designed for beetle pollination, as bees evolved later than the first Magnolias!
Trees offer many simple yet important lessons to those of us with open eyes and an open heart. Patricia has made a list of some of the many lessons she has learned over her years of living with, and observing trees. These reflect her love of trees and her gratitude for all the comfort and wisdom they’ve provided her. We hope you will give some thought to what trees have taught you during your lifetime.
Trees have provided Mary with other kinds of lessons, raising many questions in her scientist’s mind. How do trees grow? What accounts for the diversity among them? Why are the colors, textures, and patterns of tree bark so different? What physical forces are involved in this variation? What is the significance of all this variability? All these questions, and others, arise during a walk even in a small area like the Abbott Marshlands.
There is still so much to be learned about trees, about how they grow, live, and communicate with each other and other organisms. New studies continue to add to our understanding of the information and wisdom imbedded in the DNA of each. Some trees may be thousands of years old, others are short lived. Each is a miracle. Beyond the beauty trees bring to our world, inspiration may come from their religious significance, or from the many benefits they provide us as humans. Just a brief listing of some of what trees provide might include lumber for our homes, food and spices for our tables, and medicines for our health, as well as the air and water purification we need to survive.
We can all learn from trees, but to understand their wisdom we need to take time to observe, to reflect on what we see, and to be receptive to the gifts they provide. We must remain humble in the face of these majestic beings, and acknowledge that we do not know all. We must be advocates for the trees, and for all life on our planet, in order to meet the daunting challenges of the future posed by climate change.
Our goal in this exhibition was to combine art and science in unique ways to explore how these two approaches might enhance our understanding and appreciation of trees. It is our wish that this exhibit will stimulate viewers to appreciate trees, their magic, and their wisdom more fully, and that our high regard for them has been passed on to you. The exhibit will resume for several months once the Nature Center re-opens. Details will be posted on abbottmarshlands.org as soon as they are available.
All photographs are for sale and sales support programs of Friends for the Abbott Marshlands.
Many made this ‘Wisdom of Trees’ exhibit possible. With great appreciation we acknowledge the support of the following:
Friends for the Abbott Marshlands, D&R Greenway Land Trust, Mercer County Park Commission & Tulpehaking Nature Center
We specifically thank: Pat Coleman and Friends for the Abbott Marshlands Executive Committee, Jeff Emde, Clem Fiori, Pat Flores and her Reception Irregulars, Jack Graham, Alexandria Kosowski, Warren Libensperger, John Maret & Doug Turner, Maia Reim, Kelly Rypkema, Margaret Simpson, Dean Tantum & Dave Pratt at Capitol Copy, and Rider University. (Apologies to anyone we overlooked.)
Mary Allessio Leck