Digging through crusty snow with gloved hands underneath a massive American Beech tree I search for beech nuts. This years crop was modest. In areas where beech stands are prevalent the nut crop was about average. In areas where there are few beech trees, or those areas where a beech tree stand alone, the fertile beech nut crop was negligent.
Beech trees are capable, and often do, produce a husk without a fertile nut inside. Years ago it was assumed that all of these empty husks were void because the nuts were consumed by the larvae of insects. We now know that beech tree pollen is tremendously heavy and does not blow very far in the wind. American beech trees that are found within modest to large groups of other beech trees have a good chance of being pollinated, but only when the conditions are just right. Weather, especially temperature, as well as wind direction and speed, have a lot to do with successful pollination. A beech tree’s hormonal activity, some believe this to be an effective communication technique used by trees, also likely plays a significant role in a good beech nut production year. Trees that are not pollinated sometimes produce husks without fertile nuts inside. The exact mechanism by which this occurs remains somewhat of a mystery.
Beech reproduce primarily by root suckers, better known locally as stump sprouts. This type of reproduction is effective in maintaining populations but not very good for genetic diversity. The problem with root sucker reproduction is that each new tree is an exact DNA replica of the parent tree. And although these trees can reproduce sexually, meaning with pollen carrying the male gamete and a receptive female pistil, there is no introduction of new genetic material. It is genetic diversity that allows plants and animals to adapt to changing environments and without this a plant, in this case an American Beech tree, can be at risk. With this in mind the importance of sexual reproduction becomes more important. Successful sexual reproduction is critically important to the long term health and success of any particular species.
So here I am searching for beech nuts. I am looking in an area where a hemlock forest has grown up around an old beech grove. The hemlocks are generally in the 80 to 100 year old category. The surviving beech trees are much older. Some of them are likely 150 years old and some are even older. I am particularly interested in these trees because they are surviving in a difficult environment. They are surrounded by a tree that shades the forest floor heavily. Generally American Beech trees like light. Many of the trees have beech bark disease. Some of the trees are heavily infested with this complicated disease and the trees are nearing death. But a few of the trees show only minor impacts by this serious condition. And a couple of trees reveal that they may not have the fatal disease at all.
I’m curious to see if these beech trees, under a great deal of stress (diseased, heavily shaded, impending death), will produce a good number of fertile nuts. Keep in mind that the trees are not close together. There are about a dozen large beech trees in a couple of acres of woods now dominated by hemlock.
I suspect that the fertile pollen can’t travel far. The dense hemlock forest both inhibits wind and interferes with the movement of pollen because of the thick hemlock foliage. I’m wondering if stress can overcome these environmental conditions. Does the tree have a will to live that can overcome these circumstances? Certainly my short sighted investigation will prove nothing. But I may get enough information to form a hypothesis that I can research in the future.
The 10 inches of snow is hard on top but remains somewhat loose and granular near the forest floor duff. I break off the crust and then rummage through the material on the ground. At first I don’t find any beech nuts and I wonder if they were all consumed by wildlife earlier in the autumn. I move about twenty feet, break up the crust on the snow by walking around on it, and renew my search for beech nuts by running my hands through the leaf litter on the ground’s surface. After some time I stand up and begin kicking at the detritus on the ground with my boots in an effort at covering a larger area in a shorter amount of time. This proves successful as I expose a number of beech nuts. I return to my hands and knees and with a hand lens I begin the inspect the beech nuts. The first few are open husks. These likely had fertile nuts that were consumed by wildlife. I roll my hands through the decomposed leaves, needles, and twigs on the ground. I’m surprised to find a half a dozen nuts that have not been opened.
Prying at each husk with my pen knife I find the first one to be empty. I pry another one open. It is also empty. A third? The same thing. In fact, all six unopened husks contained no fertile nut.
I stand up with the opened husks in my hand. The frozen snow crunches underneath my feet. So far I’ve experienced beech nuts that were opened by hungry wildlife and empty beech nut husks that were left behind. It occurs to me that at least some of the animals that consume these beech nuts can tell they have no nut within the husk. That makes sense for those with a keen sense of smell but wild turkeys, for instance, do not have a well developed sense of smell. In fact their sense of smell is known to be negligible. Perhaps they open the husks, see nothing is there, and simply move on to the next nut. It’s clear I’m not going to unravel this part of the puzzle now and file it in my mind under the “to be looked into in the future” category.
I move uphill in the dense hemlock grove to an area that holds a few more mature American beeches. There is a old yellow birch up there that peeled out of the ground in the ice storm of 2008. The trunk now lays on the ground and it supplies a fabulous place to sit. This will be a good place for me to rest and take in the surroundings.
As I approach the fallen birch I notice tiny mounds of snow here and there. The loose snow from the bottom is piled up in miniature stacks on top of the snow. The crusty snow reveals no tracks. It is too hard to break under the weight of smaller animals although it easily gives to my 250 pound frame. I walk up to the birch laying prone to the ground and find a good place to sit between two branches. I scrape the frozen snow off of the tree trunk to create a sitting spot that will be less likely to get wet under my warm body. I lean my back against one of the branches as I sit down. I am looking downhill. Shafts of light filters between the thick hemlock overstory and creates dancing images on the frozen snow as a light breeze flows across the landscape.
Just as I’m finding total relaxation and settling into this fairy tale environment a gray squirrel, acting a little nervously, hops across the snow under the shadows of conifer branches above. It stops at a random location and starts digging through the snow. It then finds a beech nut cache, a place where beech nuts were stored earlier in the autumn, and opens each husk one at a time. Although it is hard to tell from my distant point of view it appears that all of the beech nuts are fertile. The squirrel consumes about a dozen nuts, some of them, perhaps stored in its cheeks and taken back to a nest. The squirrel saunters off, completely unaware of my presence. I watch the squirrel as it disappears into the hardwood forest nearby. My curiosity gets the best of me and I get off of my birch seat and wander over to the opened snowy cache. There are no nuts left behind. The hole is clean. The squirrel seems to have made a clean get away with a bounty that will help sustain it in this cold and challenging season.
Standing over the cleaned cache I wonder if the squirrel located the spot by memory or smell. It went directly to the digging spot and found the beech nuts. Certainly some academic graduate student has studied this. It will be a good topic to research one evening when it pops back into my memory.
For some reason this seems like the perfect ending for a good morning in the winter forest. I start back down mountain. Each step in the crunchy snow sends a jarring crunching noise into the quiet forest. My presence will be obvious to wildlife far and wide.
And for just a moment I wish that I was as light as a squirrel.
Originally written for the Heath Herald in January of 2014.