Ironwood seed (photo: Macphail Woods)

The elusive ironwood

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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Ironwood. Now that’s a name for a tree. Nothing weeping or willowy or trembling about this one. The very name oozes strength and hardness.  This native tree was probably never really common across the province, but assuredly it was more widely spread than it is today.

The Europeans who colonized Prince Edward Island created sweeping changes in the ecology of our province. We rightly bemoan the fact that we are missing many species of mammals that once occupied our forests (and even our shorelines, in the case of the walrus). The land-clearing was hard on many of our native plants as well.

Ironwood is one of our rarest tree species, ranked by the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre (accdc.com) as an S1, the “Critically Imperiled” category.  It is mostly found mostly in the western part of the province, especially in mixed stands with moist soils. It is never found in the canopy of older forests, as it tends to be shorter than our towering maples and birches. But it is another species, like striped maple, that makes up the mid-story of a forest, diversifying its structure.

The wood of this tree is the hardest of any species in the country. It was used in making woodworking planes, mallets and tool handles, and also for fuelwood, though it would have been wicked to cut down without a chainsaw. I’ve always had this strange notion that if you really understood trees, you could identify them without sight, either by touch or scent or how they react to you shaking the trunk. The first time I tried to shake a 3–4” ironwood, it just didn’t move. There was no flex in it, unlike a birch or a willow. It felt rock hard. I’m not sure how helpful this is, but it sure has stuck with me.

Ironwood is part of the birch family (which includes our four native birches, two alders, and beaked hazelnut), and it is easy to identify. The leaves are toothed and look like yellow birch, but the bark and seeds are very different. Ironwood bark is brown and flakes into vertical strips, looking nothing at all like a birch once it is out of the juvenile stage.

Ironwood is also known as hop hornbeam, as its fruits look a lot like those found on hop vines. They are groups of papery pouches with a single seed inside each one. The pouches are covered with fibres that get into your hands and feel like fibreglass, causing similar itchiness. Another one of those things you learn the hard way.

The seeds are difficult to get going, sometimes taking two years to germinate. We still have a lot to learn about this species, and so are only slowly moving forward to recovering this species. It can be frustrating at times, no question. Still, we have 15-to-25-year-old ironwood at Macphail Woods that we have grown from seed. We’re collecting seed from these trees, and eventually they will naturally seed into the surrounding forests. Perhaps it is just laziness, but I take great pleasure in thinking that once we put seed sources in place, then nature will take over our restoration work.

As with all rare native plants, I’m looking for other sources of seed in order to ensure a diverse genetic base. And by selecting seed from healthy, vigorous trees, we will improve the quality of future plants as well.

If you know anywhere that ironwood might be growing, you can get in touch through macphailwoods.org.

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.