A Tree Walk at Esopus Bend Nature Preserve


by Lin Fagan
October 15, 2008

The trails at Esopus Bend Nature Preserve lead the walker into an unusual habitat for Ulster County: lowland forest adapted to wet conditions and frequent floods. Such habitat was probably once common along the Esopus Creek. These lands, however, were exploited by successive groups of farmers—from the Native Americans to Dutch then English settlers. Some of the rich Esopus bottomlands are still farmed. Others have been obscured by housing tracts, roadways, or shopping malls. Although altered by many years of agricultural use and introduction of alien plant species, the creek side lands of EBNP have developed their own unique lowland character.

When farmland is abandoned, one of the earliest trees to colonize the old fields is the Red Cedar which is actually a Juniper. Only a few Red Cedars are now found in the preserve: they are being overtaken by broadleaf trees, whose shade will eventually kill the junipers. Along the river edge, there is a great stand of Black Oaks—some of the largest trees along the trail. They must have been young trees and saplings when the land was farmed. Maybe the farmer tolerated them along the river to stabilize the shoreline. In the muddier sections along the trail, there are many young Eastern Cottonwoods of similar size and age, suggesting that they were all seeded after one big flood. It is unusual to see a stand of Cottonwoods that age in Ulster County.

A tree unusual in the northeast but common in Esopus Bend is the River Birch. These birches never become very big individually, but tend to grow in attractive clumps. They have a flaky, papery bark that varies in color from tan to black. The twigs and new growth branches are a rich, dark red. Among the birches found in the Preserve, the River Birch is the one that most prefers stream sides and bottom-lands. They are numerous along the creek on the inland side of the trail.

Another tree common along the Schroeder Trail is the American Beech. Larger specimens are easily recognized by their smooth gray bark. Usually a tree of the uplands, there are many young Beeches along the wetter part of the trail. The maples along the Schroeder Trail are predominantly Sugar Maples, although there are Red Maples as well. Silver Maples are more common in the Meadow and the Wetland sections of the Preserve, but there is a grand Silver Maple at the site of the old ford, at the bend of the creek.

East of the old ford, there are several Black Locusts. Locusts were once very popular in the U.S.—as witness the numbers of old estates with names like “Locust Grove.” The wood of the Black Locust is very hard and heavy. It is little affected by changes in moisture content, thus was used as dowels or “tree nails” in the construction of wooden ships. The seeds are sometimes eaten by birds, but are poisonous to mammals, as are the young shoots and bark of the Black Locust.

As the Schroeder Trail climbs to higher ground, the trees change. Instead of concentrations of a few species, there tend to be single examples of upland trees: a Shagbark and a Pignut Hickory, in addition to the Bitternut Hickory that prefers the lower areas. Red Oaks mix with Black Oaks. A single Tulip Tree, a Catalpa, and a Basswood. On a knoll near the junction with the yellow trail, however, there are a few Apple trees left over from the orchard days. In all there are at least three dozen tree species that can be seen along the Schroeder Trail. How many can you identify?

[wpfilebase tag=file path=’esopuscreekconservancyreports/treesofebnp.pdf’ /]

Photo by Chris Florsch