On April 12 in a talk titled “Trees Worth Knowing in Eastern Ontario”, naturalist Owen Clarkin shared his love and knowledge of trees with guests as part of a nature talk sponsored by Southern Frontenac Community Services and the Grace Centre Arts Committee at the Grace Centre in Sydenham. Clarkin has been working for a number of years alongside painter Aleta Karstad and her husband biologist Fred Schueler in their ongoing research project titled “Fragile Inheritance”. The project’s goal is to “promote and support the long term study of species in their habitats and the human and environmental effects on them”.
Clarkin, who grew up in Russell, Ontario, said that it was the huge elms in those parts that first fascinated him, along with the well-known book “Native Trees of Canada” by R.C. Hosie. Clarkin, who was educated as a chemist, has for years been studying and photographing trees and he began looking for answers to a number of questions he felt were not being considered in the science of forestry. “I had questions that weren’t being considered, likely because of a lack of funding, so I decided independently to begin studying the ecology of the forests of Eastern Ontario.”
In his presentation Clarkin highlighted the not so well known relatives of common trees in the area, like the sugar maple’s cousin, the black maple, which produces a tastier sap than its relative. He spoke about the heartleaf birch, which has a more ragged and copper-colored covering than the paper birch. He demonstrated the difference between the shag and shell bark hickories, and also spoke of the Kentucky coffee tree, which has huge twigs and seeds and “stands up well in ice storms because of its smaller overall surface area”. He spoke about the Blue ash (Fraxinus quadrangulata), the only ash tree native to North America that is resilient to the emerald ash borer.
There are two cousins of the American elm: the rock elm, which can be identified by its corky twigs and pointy, yellowish buds, and the slippery elm, which has wavier branches and red, hairy buds on thicker, stouter twigs. He spoke about the Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), which can be found in the Carolinian Zone forests that come as far north as the southern side of Lake Ontario. He spoke of the red spruce (Picea rubens), which has been found growing in Algonguin Park and can tolerate very dry and hot conditions.
Clarkin advised that if you want to get to know a tree, start first by being able to identify its twigs and buds. He stressed that research into forest and tree ecology is important since trees are “facing a huge number of threats right now as a result of climate change, which is bringing with it hotter and dryer conditions, and globalization, which is bringing invasive insects and fungi. “We're noticing now that trees are not growing as big and living as long as they used to just a few decades ago. So this research is very practical but it is proving very difficult to get funding for it.”
To address that concern, Clarkin is now working on a book about trees and has collected a lot of material which he hopes to sort through and publish at a later date. In an effort to spread his love of trees and specifically elms, Clarkin commissioned Aleta Karstad to paint one of his favorite trees, a 92-foot-tall, one-metre-wide rock elm in Merrickville that he estimates could be anywhere from 200 to 250 years old. Karstad's painting titled “Merrickville Rock Elm” can be seen on Aleta's blog at aletakarstad.com and it is one of three paintings that Clarkin will commission her to paint.
Clarkin offered advice on practical steps that homeowners can take to assist the health of their trees. “First, I would make a point of identifying what is growing in your woodlots, along your fence lines or in your yards since that will give you clues about what the land is like and will tell you which other species (likely the known companions of the species already there) are missing and that you might want to consider reintroducing.”