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Palmer Woods, Cayuga Heights, NY

Posted: Tue Oct 13, 2015 6:26 pm
by tomhoward
On this sunny, very warm Sunday (Oct. 11, 2015, temperatures well over 71 F), Elijah Whitcomb and I explored Palmer Woods, an Oak forest in Cayuga Heights, NY, on the North Campus of Cornell University. Mary Byrd Davis, ed., Old Growth in the East: A Survey: Revised Edition, Vernon, KY: Appalachia-Science in the Public Interest, 2003, p.30 describes this site as follows: “25 acres of oak forest, of which 13 are old growth, unlogged except for chestnut salvage, owned by Cornell University.” The information for the Davis Survey came from a more detailed report by a group called the Cornell Greens in the 1990s. It was said to be the finest old growth Oak forest in central NY. This information inspired Robert Henry and me to visit this site on Apr. 30, 2000. It was an impressive site then, but was lacking in important old growth characteristics like abundant pit and mound topography (which should have been there as the older parts of Palmer Woods are on hilltops, which are subject to wind throw), large trees with balding bark, gnarled crowns, stem sinuosity.

There are many large trees at Palmer Woods, but they are concentrated in a few areas, and most of the large trees seem to be young. Oaks look like the oldest trees, but even they do not seem to be very old (maybe not much over 150 years old).

Most of the older forest at Palmer Woods that Elijah and I visited Oct. 11, 2015, was concentrated in 2 sections, a southern section of about 2-3 acres, and a northern section of about 5 acres. Most of the site is very young second growth forest, and open lawns used as a disc golf course.

Trees seen at Palmer Woods (mostly in older sections):

Dominant: White Oak, Black Oak (in north), Pignut Hickory (in south, tallest trees at Palmer Woods), young Tuliptree (north), White Pine (scattered throughout, nowhere very tall or old), Red Maple (mostly young)

Associate: Red Oak (some big, but young-looking), Sugar Maple, Norway Maple, Boxelder, Black Cherry, Sweet Cherry, Basswood, Black Birch (common and large on and near steep slopes in north), Dogwood, American Hornbeam, Beech, Shagbark Hickory, Bitternut Hickory, Black Walnut, Hemlock (one large tree on steep slope in north), Sassafras, Ash, Cottonwood, Bigtooth Aspen (tallest in central NY in older forest in south), Quaking Aspen, Gray Birch, Paper Birch (these 2 species near the tall Bigtooth Aspen in south), Witch Hazel, Norway Spruce (seedling)

We parked in a lot south of the woods, near some open-grown large White Oaks with White Pines and taller Pignut Hickories. Elijah measured a height of over 100 ft. on the tallest Pignut Hickory on the south edge.

In a small area of 2nd growth, the largest trees are 2 open-grown White Oaks (one 9 ft. 4” cbh (35.7” dbh) and over 90 ft. tall, the other 10 ft. 6” cbh (40.1” dbh)).

We walked north along the west edge of the woods; Elijah got 105 ft. on a Pignut Hickory with golden leaves.

I counted about 130 rings on a 7.5” radius log cross-section, possibly Oak, but there was no bark left for identification.

Elijah got over 106 ft. on a Pignut Hickory with bark becoming shaggy, but not as shaggy as Shagbark Hickory.

At the edge of some very young 2nd growth woods to the east is a small grove of Sassafras – I got 75.8 ft. above eye level on what looked like the tallest Sassafras; I couldn’t see the base in the dense brush.

Back along the west edge, Elijah measured a big Pignut Hickory with shaggy bark (but not as shaggy as Shagbark) to 108 ft., and a White Pine to 105 ft. To the west of this section is a forest island with big open-grown Red Oaks and slightly taller White Pines. On the east side of this forest island I measured a big White Pine to only 90 ft.

We entered a hilly forest dominated by White Oak and Pignut Hickory. This is the older forest in the southern part of Palmer Woods. This section contains the tallest trees we would see at Palmer Woods. We saw a Pileated Woodpecker in this section.

In this area Elijah got a straight up shot of at least 123 ft. on a Pignut Hickory (with Poison Ivy climbing up its trunk) – this is the tallest tree we would see at Palmer Woods. This is one of the tallest Pignut Hickories in NY State. In the same hilly, forested area, Elijah measured White Oaks to 100 ft. 101.5 ft, 98.4 ft. Oaks are consistently shorter than Hickories at Palmer Woods.

In the same area, around these rather large Oaks and Hickories, we saw a small Gray Birch, small Paper Birch, and deep in the hollow where these Birches grow, a tall Bigtooth Aspen, which I measured to 92.5 ft., the tallest Bigtooth Aspen I’ve measured, most likely the tallest Bigtooth Aspen in central NY. It is still a young tree, and there are young Cottonwoods in the area. The presence of young members of these pioneer species means that this is not an old growth forest.

I measured a White Oak in the hollow to 97.1 ft., and a yellow-leafed Pignut Hickory in the hollow to 107.5 ft. This tree is next to the 123 ft. Pignut Hickory.

We continued north through open areas, young 2nd growth, by a European Larch plantation; in this area, invasive Bittersweet everywhere climbs over young trees and shrubs.

The trail took us into an area of bigger trees. We were now in the northern part of Palmer Woods, the section said to be 13 acres of pristine old growth, said to be the finest old growth Oak forest in central NY. It was this section, which seems to be 5 acres at most, that Robert Henry and I explored in 2000. The ground in most places near the edge and right in among the big trees, is covered with invasive Bittersweet, but the Bittersweet does not penetrate the depths of the grove.

This section is dominated by large Black Oaks (some with balding bark, but otherwise not old looking), White Oaks, White Pines, young Tuliptrees. In this section is the largest tree we’d see at Palmer Woods, a White Oak 12 ft. cbh (45.8” dbh), with a wide crown; Elijah got a straight up shot of over 111 ft., a surprising height, as most Oaks here are lower. It is the biggest and tallest Oak we’d measure at Palmer Woods, and is even taller than the tallest White Pine, which is near this White Oak. This White Oak is the largest tree Robert Henry and I saw at Palmer Woods in 2000. This section ahs many large impressive Black Oaks. Elijah got 105 ft. on a 10.6 ft. cbh (40.5” dbh) Black Oak.

Elijah measured the tallest White Pine in the midst of these Black Oaks to 109.1 ft., not an exceptional height, but the tallest White Pine we’d find at Palmer Woods.

We saw a young recently dead Ash.

I measured a typical Black Oak with wide, leaning crown to 92.7 ft. and a more slender Black Oak near the tallest White Pine to 102.1 ft.

I measured a young Tuliptree near the tallest White Pine to 108.3 ft.

Elijah got 109.1 ft. on another young Tuliptree. These Tuliptrees are very young, have no balding bark, and seem to be under 100 years old.

A strong skunk odor pervaded the forest near the edge of a steep hill.

Elijah measured a large Hemlock (only large Hemlock seen at Palmer Woods) rising out of the deep hollow to 114.7 ft.

There are many large Black Birches in this section, going down the steep hill and out into the hollow. Most of these Black Birches are over 90 ft. tall, and some could be over 100 ft. Elijah’s highest number on Black Birch is 99.5 ft. in this stand.

I measured the following Black Birch rising out of the hollow to 92.5 ft.

A big Black Oak (10.5 ft. cbh, 40” dbh) has a branch scar low down on its trunk, and the growth rings on the branch scar are extremely wide. These trees are not very old.

I measured a slender Red Maple (typical of many) to 93.9 ft.

Elijah measured a Red Maple in the same area to 100 ft.

I measured a slender Black Oak in the same area to 95.2 ft.

In the same area, we found a leaning Sassafras (2 ft. 10” cbh, 10.8” dbh) that Elijah measured to a height of 79 ft.

Elijah got 110 ft. on a young Tuliptree, and 104 ft. on a Black Oak.

I measured a young slender Tuliptree to 107.1 ft.

In the same area I measured a slender White Pine to 102.9 ft. This is not the highest point of this tree; the highest point was not visible to the laser rangefinder – this White Pine should be 105 ft. tall at the most.

I counted 125 rings on a 7.5” radius Black Oak log cross-section.

We saw a small American Hornbeam in this section.

Elijah measured a young Tuliptree to 114 ft.

Palmer Woods is a good site for tall Pignut Hickory, rather short, stout Oaks, and Black Birch, but is not a good White Pine site.

The presence of many young Tuliptrees, young White Pines, young Red Maples in the oldest section of Palmer Woods, seems to indicate a high level of disturbance on this site. The whole site was most likely completely cleared in the early 1800s, when the present large Oaks could have had their start, but after this was often disturbed to allow the young Tuliptrees, White Pines, and Red Maples to come in. Frequent logging for a period of several decades is the most likely disturbance. Even the oldest part of Palmer Woods is far from being an old growth forest. The finest old growth Oak forests I know of in central NY are the North Syracuse Cemetery Oak grove, the Wizard of Oz Memorial Oak Grove in North Syracuse, and Cayuga lake State Park.

We returned to Elijah’s car and made our way back to North Syracuse.

Tree Heights Measured Oct. 11, 2015 at Palmer Woods, Cayuga Heights, NY:


Pignut Hickory 100
White Oak 90
Pignut Hickory 105
Pignut Hickory 106+
Sassafras 75.8+
Pignut Hickory 108
White Pine 105
White Pine 90
Pignut Hickory 123+ (Elijah Whitcomb, tie with Cayuga Lake State Park for tallest in upstate NY, possibly tallest in NY)
White Oak 100
White Oak 101.5
White Oak 98.4
Bigtooth Aspen 92.5 (Tom Howard, tallest central NY)
White Oak 97.1
Pignut Hickory 107.5
White Oak 111+
Black Oak 105
White Pine 109.1
Black Oak 92.7
Black Oak 102.1
Tuliptree 108.3
Tuliptree 109.1
Hemlock 114.7
Black Birch 99.5
Black Birch 92.5
Red Maple 93.9
Black Oak 95.2
Red Maple 100
Sassafras 79
Tuliptree 110
Black Oak 104
Tuliptee 107.1
White Pine 102.9+
Tuliptree 114+

Heights in feet measured by Elijah Whitcomb and Tom Howard of NTS by Sine method



Palmer Woods Rucker 10 Oct. 11, 2015:

Pignut Hickory 123
Hemlock 114.7
Tuliptree 114
White Oak 111
White Pine 109.1
Black Oak 105
Red Maple 100
Black Birch 99.5
Bigtooth Aspen 92.5
Sassafras 79

Rucker 10: 104.78 ft.

Palmer Woods Rucker 5 Oct. 11, 2015:

Pignut Hickory 123
Hemlock 114.7
Tuliptree 114
White Oak 111
White Pine 109.1

Rucker 5: 114.36 ft.

Heights for Red Oak, Beech, Sugar Maple, Shagbark Hickory, Cottonwood were not measured on this visit, but they should not be significant, should be under 100 ft.


Tom Howard