New Life for Old Trees

Almost a year ago to the day, we had a major early season snow storm that dumped 18″ of wet snow on our central MA farm. I wrote about it at When Life Gives You Storm Damage, Make Habitat and lamented the fact that we had lost a beautiful red maple near our barn, which was split in two:

At the time, we trimmed off the worst of the damaged limbs, but decided to hold off on cutting the damaged tree down to the ground – the tree still managed to leaf out this year, and it was easier to wait til the leaves fell in autumn to remove the remaining limbs and trunk. Here are the last of its leaves this past weekend, still showing the bright autumn color that we loved so much:

The red maple in its glory days before the Halloween Storm of 2011.

All this summer, I’ve been trying to decide what to replace the maple with. It’s a focal point on our farm, and I felt strongly that the area needed a vertical element, such as another tree, or at least a flowering shrub. But it couldn’t be so big that the horses could reach over and eat the twigs and leaves. I hemmed and hawed.

Sometimes, procrastination pays because it gives you time to consider all your options. In the past week, the solution came to me. Why not leave the trunk itself standing as a “wildlife snag“, and plant some fast-growing flowering vines at the base?

Not only would it save my husband the effort of cutting the trunk to the ground (hard work), but a 10′ high trunk of old maple covered with pretty flowering vines would be a huge attractant to many birds and insects who use old wood for food and nesting. DUH! Why didn’t I think of this before?

So the trunk will be topped at about 10-12′ this weekend, and 2 native Clematis vines (Virgin’s Bower – Clematis virginiana ) that I just happen to have sitting in my plant ghetto will be placed at its base. Quick to grow and bloom, this vine will give me pretty flowers as early as next summer, and my dead maple will once again be a magnificent focal point.

In the meantime, we’ll be watching for the woodpeckers and sapsuckers, bluebirds and nuthatches that will use the snag for food and nesting. Old wood is easy to excavate for nests, and harbors lots of wood-dwelling insects that are food for birds through the seasons. Undoubtedly it will become a perch for hawks looking for a meal, or kingfishers swooping for fish in our farm pond.

Clematis virginiana aka “Devil’s Darning Needles”, my vine of choice for my new wildlife snag (shown here covering an arbor):

Don’t you love it when the laziest approach makes the most sense! Check back here next year for photos from our new wildlife snag!

Early season hummingbirds will appreciate the work of the wood-drilling yellow-bellied sapsucker – sugary sap oozing from the holes in spring are an important early-season food source for returning ruby-throated hummingbirds, along with mourning cloak and eastern comma butterflies who emerge from hibernation before most plants are blooming. Tom Pawlesh photo.

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  1. Vicky says

    But what’s to keep the tree from resprouting? Won’t it just think it’s been pruned really hard (ok, really, REALLY hard) and send up a bunch of water sprouts in the spring?

    • says

      Good question Vicky – I should have mentioned in my article that this is going to be a temporary landscape feature for the next few years, eventually we will probably take the tree down to the ground – the trunk has been rotting for some time now and the split down the middle means it will never really recover its former glory as a specimum tree. Any sprouts will be pruned out. It is really too big a tree for that spot – too close to hungry horse mouths and red maple leaves are toxic to them.
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Vegetable Gardening the Natural Way

  2. says

    Horray for you Ellen!

    Some of the most interesting features around here are my dead tree “stumps” that are 15 ft or so high. The wildlife is never ending. letting the vines grow up will really make yours an element of with added interest.

    I didn’t realize that red maple was toxic to horses. I’m so surprised at the amount of flora that are dangerous to cattle and horsies.

    The picture of your tree in its heyday is breathtaking and you must have mourned its loss, but it sounds like it still has a lot of life left. Keep us posted!
    Loret recently posted..New Life List Dragonfly

    • says

      Loret – red maple leaves are toxic to horses when they are just wilted – such as a broken branch that falls with green leaves still on it. Of course my horses would gobble those right up! They’re not toxic when they’re dry and fall in the autumn, nor when they’re green on the tree, thankfully.

      Yes, we were very sad to lose the beautiful tree but feeling happy now about the new form it’s going to take as a wildlife snag!
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Vegetable Gardening the Natural Way

  3. says

    Too bad the tree can’t come back, Ellen. But leaving it as a snag for wildlife is a smart choice. I am sure it will make lots of critters happy in your wildlife garden. The clematis sounds lovely. I am jealous that you have native clematis in MA. Out here the clematis that gets planted is lovely but doesn’t ‘really belong’.
    Kathy Vilim recently posted..Where To Go To See Native Plants in California?

    • says

      It was a surprise and thrill to find out about our native clematis – it looks a lot like the non-native sweet autumn clematis that is often grown around here, with the same pretty white fragrant flowers that attract lots of bees. It produces a lot of seeds, so the birds love it, and I always have plenty of seedlings to give to friends or sell at plant sales. I see it growing along the roadsides in my town so it’s still hanging on against the non-native invasive onslaught (bittersweet, garlic mustard, Jap. honeysuckle, etc etc etc). Let’s hope that continues!
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Vegetable Gardening the Natural Way

  4. says

    A perfect (and beautiful) solution! Plant a sapling now, next to the snag, and then you’ll have a couple years’ growth on it when you finally take down the old trunk. Especially if you plant something slow growing like a Nyssa (yes, yes, I think black gum would be a perfect tree there by the barn, structural, eye catching, glorious in fall). Or a red oak.

    Meanwhile, the virgin’s bower will be stunning. We have it growing wild along the roads in our development.
    Laurrie recently posted..Well, This is Odd

  5. Harry Mozen says

    Ellen: I don’t understand why you don’t let the tree alone as it is. If you are going to cut it it will put out sprouts from the still alive cambium layer next spring, which sprouts will eventually grow into limbs. The only way to have a snag, in my opinion, is to poison the tree around the base . That would kill it. Red maples can put out many sprouts, at least here in the South.


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