In Search of the Ancients The Black Tupelos of Niagara

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Many thousands of years ago, glaciers carved out the Ontario landscape. Though most of us know gentle rolling hills to be glacial products, have you ever seen a slough forest? As glaciers advanced, they plowed the land in many ways. Most common was the pushing of gigantic mounds of earth at the leading edge of a glacier – like a giant bulldozer. But a much less common movement was a raking of the land. Like parallel fingers gouging out earth. Parallel troughs.

It was these parallel troughs we were looking for. At the edges, we would find the ancient black tupelo. They inhabit the edges of these slough forests where there is a moist environment. It was reported that these tupelo were 400 – 500 years old and the last remnant of ancient forest. We had investigated many locations only to find the tupelo gone or maybe on private property.

Black Tupelo Leaf

Last fall, we thought to investigate the Niagara area. In the fall, the black tupelo has the most stunning foliage – a rosy red colored leaf easily viewed on the forest floor. It was these colored leaves we were hoping to find at the end of a long day of seed collection. Once I saw the leaf I excitedly told Rick that tupelo were here.

Black Tupelo breaking through forest canopy

We literally couldn’t see the trees for the forest. They towered well above the existing oaks and maples. Only by stepping into a small clearing could I finally see the tupelos. Beautiful in their ragged way. With age, as the tupelo break through the forest canopy, they are blasted by winds and storms and develop a broken, balding crown. Their bark showed the unique ‘alligator’ pattern of old, chunky bark followed by sections of smooth.

Black Tupelo alligator bark

Rick asked, ‘What does the fruit look like?’ As I described the purplish oblong berry he opens up his hand and there were intact seeds. The next passage of time was a blur as we crawled on our hands and knees seeking out the seeds. Many hikers strolled by giving us sympathetic looks assuming we had lost car keys or something valuable.

We collected till the light quality started to fail. I couldn’t stop smiling all the way home. Funny what makes people happy.