532-year-old Nova Scotia hemlock claims record for oldest tree in the Maritimes

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Nova Scotia has only a tiny fraction of old growth forest left.

But thanks to research completed this summer, the province can claim the oldest tree on record in the Maritimes.

This is a 532-year-old Eastern Hemlock located in a stand not far from the South Panuke Wilderness, northwest of Hubbards.

The land was owned by the Bowater Mersey Paper Company. The province bought the plot, along with many others, in 2012.

Peter Bush, left, research director at the Department of Natural Resources and Renewable Energy, chats with forestry researchers Brad Butt, center, and Emily Woudstra during a recent visit to the site of the oldest tree in the Maritimes . (Steve Lawrence / CBC)

This summer, forestry researchers from the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources and Renewable Energy collected cores from about 100 trees in a small old stand.

After counting the rings on a sample tree, Dalhousie University student Meaghan Pollock approached her colleague Emily Woudstra.

“She said: ‘I think we got old [this tree at] 500 years ”, and I said to myself:“ No way! I don’t believe it, “Woudstra said.” So go show Brad and I want to count that after too. “

Brad Butt, a forestry researcher, also didn’t believe it until he took a closer look at the sample.

“Yeah, there’s definitely some excitement there,” Butt said. “You sort of … stopped the stopwatch for a minute and everyone paused to really watch it.” “

This sample core from an old eastern hemlock tree in Nova Scotia was confirmed to contain 532 rings. Most of the rings are very tight, with some growing only two or three cells of the wood in certain years of its life. (Ben Phillips)

Woudstra counted the rings again to make sure the count was correct.

“[There] It was sort of a buzz around the office and people kept asking if they could see the base sample as well. “

To be sure of the tree’s age, the province sent the sample to Ben Phillips of Mount Allison University. Phillips is a dendrochronologist or tree ring expert.

“This tree has 532 measurable rings,” Phillips said in a recent video chat. “I measured each of them under the microscope to the thousandths of a millimeter.

“Some of these rings were only two to three cells wide.”

A provincially-owned forest stand near Hubbards is home to a 532-year-old eastern hemlock. The land was owned by the Bowater Mersey Paper Company. (Steve Lawrence / CBC)

The fact that many of these rings are so close together is proof that the tree grew very slowly. This made the wood extremely strong, according to Phillips.

He compared it to a commonly used building material.

“You wouldn’t buy a piece of plywood that had two or three plies,” he said. “You buy plywood that has… maybe 10 plies.

“It has a lot of layers that make it strong. Same thing with very old trees. When they have these little tiny tree rings, those rings are actually stronger.”

Ben Phillips measures tree rings at Mount Allison University. (Joshua Kurek)

Phillips found the last record holder for the oldest tree in the Maritimes in 2005. It was a 465-year-old red spruce in Fundy National Park.

He’s not sorry that someone else now holds the record.

“Finding an old tree is amazing,” he said. “The more old trees we have, the better”

These tight rings also tell a larger story about the stand where the ancient hemlock is found.

Peter Bush, director of research in the Department of Natural Resources and Renewable Energy, said the tree has probably spent most of its life in the shade of taller trees, resulting in growth and slow resilience. This is sometimes why old trees are not the largest in a stand.

Bush is Director of Research for the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources and Renewable Energy. (Steve Lawrence / CBC)

“There are bigger hemlocks next to it, but this one is the oldest,” he said during a recent visit to the site.

“We were surprised that this was the oldest, but in some ways not either because we’ve seen it in other forest communities that the tallest tree is not always the oldest tree.”

Another remarkable fact is that the trees in this ancient stand appear to have escaped cutting or burning, and the oldest statesman in this stand has weathered the worst of the elements.

“You think about the time we have here,” Butt said, “so putting up with all of this for 500 years is quite something. ”

It was research like this that prompted the Government of Nova Scotia to review its old growth policy.

Not everyone agrees that what is proposed provides sufficient protection, but the fact that the province can now boast of having the oldest tree in the area may strengthen the argument that some thing deserves to be preserved.

As research director, Bush is certainly convinced that he will continue to protect this particular stand.

“It’s a unique region. It is a unique forest stand and we will try to keep this tree healthy.

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