From the Forest: Fruitful Forests

By Ryan Trapani

This spring I spent a lot of time pruning old apple trees. They were neglected old trees that either the previous landowner planted or the current one forgot about, or simply a seedling that began its life through a deer’s rumen. In any case, there they were. They were alive and managed to fruit every other year or so. Trees like these may seem trivial, but to wildlife – and some eager apple pickers – they serve an extremely beneficial role. Deer, for instance, rely upon apple trees immensely. Some trees hold onto their apples longer than others and can feed deer well into the winter when food reserves are at their lowest. Everything seems to like apple trees. Birds can take advantage of apples while still hanging on the tree. Once the fruit falls, all partake. Rabbits and voles eat the bark. Deer eat any buds or twigs they can reach. Insects and diseases feast on the leaves, fruit or bark as well. Deer hunters who choose not to eat the fruit can instead wait nearby and harvest a deer or bear on their way to and from the trees.

There are few trees so beneficial as apple, yet so high maintenance. There is a price to planting apple trees. Although they may bear fruit without initial care, routine spraying, or pruning, they certainly will do better if cared for. Trees left alone will often shade themselves out as branches become congested at the expense of fruit growth. In addition, more shade-tolerant vegetation will begin to out-compete apple trees for the sunlight, such as white ash, maple, beech, and hemlock.

Tree pruning serves as a microcosm for forest management. The apple tree pruner is simply taking out the poorest quality branches, limbs, and suckers in order for sunlight to reach the better quality foliage. In doing so, the tree will not only bear better quality fruit, but more consistently. The tree will be more structurally sound, and more resistant to insects and diseases. The symbiotic relationship between humans and apples is an easier one to swallow since most apple trees today are the product of both Nature and human propagation – via grafting – for thousands of years. However, is the same true in a forest setting? If humans can have so much positive influence on an individual tree species, can they on forest land as well?

Forests can bear fruit (or nuts) on their own while meeting some standard of quality for local wildlife and a hunter or two, but they will certainly do better if well cared for. Like an apple tree, humans too can make the forest more fruitful by shedding some light upon individual fruit-bearing trees. Whole trees within a stand can be selected for removal or preservation in order to enhance the overall fruitfulness of the forest. Cherry, serviceberry, hawthorn, crab-apple, other fruit trees, as well as a wide array of fruiting shrubs cannot tolerate much shade from competing vegetation. Releasing them from competition will ultimately preserve them; doing nothing will often lead to their decay. However, the forest is more dynamic than its fruit bearing capacity. Also included are nut trees: red, black, chestnut, and pin oak; shagbark and bitternut hickory; American beech; and even American chestnut in some places. Nut trees also require human participation in order to remain viable in the forest and prevent their displacement by more shade-tolerant species: maple, ash, beech, and hemlock. Shade-tolerant vegetation does have a role to play, but their current wide-spread abundance is at the expense of a more fruitful forest.

Like the pruner who shapes the apple tree so that it is more structurally sound, the Forester too can shape the forest. Sometimes an overgrown apple tree has too much deadwood, and drastic cuts are required to invigorate the tree, so that younger growth can occur. The same is true in a forest where too many old trees stand tall and shade out younger growth beneath. In some instances, the exclusion of younger growth has precluded wildlife species that depend upon such growth. In these cases, larger cuts are made to the mature trees, or if younger habitat already exists, encroaching trees are removed or felled over in order to preserve sunnier conditions. Trees felled over can also serve to improve structure or cover for wildlife. Tree-tops may seem like a mess, but to many wildlife species, they offer excellent places for ground-nesting birds, bedding areas for deer, and denning and escape cover for a wide variety of mammals.

Apple tree pruning is a great way to preserve tasty apples for both humans and wildlife. However, re-allocating sunlight in the forest should not be discounted among the list of things to improve quality habitat. If you have a stand of trees that you are not sure what to do with, call the Catskill Forest Association and schedule an On-Site Visit. One of their Foresters will visit the property and help you select the best place to get started in making your forest more fruitful.