Photo by Fiep de Bie

Coastal forests

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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Coastal forests are incredibly important components of our Island ecosystem. The often-relentless winter winds pound the vegetation along our north shore, limiting the sizes and species of plants in the area. But instead of seeing these areas as impoverished, we really need to embrace their richness.

Many areas along the north shore of the province, especially throughout PEI National Park, have excellent examples of crooked or tangly woods known as krummholz. These are areas of short trees—mostly white spruce, but sometimes with balsam fir and Eastern larch. In our province, it is not unusual to see fir growing on the north shore in large, low spreading patches. In Newfoundland and Labrador, these areas are called tuckamore, and can include lots of larch growing very low to the ground. They often lack much branching on the windward side due to the drying winter winds and the salt spray. As you move farther away from the shore, the trees tend to get taller, and after a while you start entering a more mixed forest.

The krummholz acts as a screen, and is made up of plants that can tolerate harsh conditions. It reduces wind speed and catches salt spray. If you wanted to construct something to accomplish the same results, it would look like a short, tight fence along the shore with succeeding rows of slightly taller and more open fencing.

But instead of fencing, we have dynamic ecosystems that provide a great many ecological benefits. They store carbon, not just in the trees but in the many other plants that can occupy these sites. This includes hardy taller shrubs such as bayberry, wild rose, serviceberry, red-berried elder, willow, and wild raisin, as well as smaller plants such as bunchberry, starflower, and wood ferns.

Creeping juniper is one of our native junipers that can be found in these areas. It is a low-growing shrub with cones that look like berries, and is well adapted to tough growing conditions. All junipers produce “berries” that can be used in the production of gin. The dense, light-green growth protects the soil and provides hiding spots for a variety of small wildlife species.

Crowberry is another low, creeping evergreen that can be found on the edges of krummholz. It is in the heather family, with short, light-green leaves and black berries. Crows and many other birds, as well as small mammals, feed on the berries.

Another ground-hugging woody plant found in these areas is large cranberry, with tart red fruit that provide food for both wildlife and humans.

In addition to the diverse plant life, these areas are often rich in birds and mammals. The dense growth provides a perfect spot for birds to hide from predators, while mammals use the areas for both hunting and hiding.

Krummholz are often a pain to travel through, so they tend to be overlooked and understudied. They are seen as wastelands, areas that serve no purpose. Yet that is far from the truth, as they provide wildlife habitat, store carbon, help slow erosion, and make it possible to grow less-hardy trees that would not survive without this protection.

These are remarkable areas that don’t get nearly the credit that they deserve.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.