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Conifer Height Potentials and Geography

Posted: Wed Sep 09, 2015 9:16 am
by Erik Danielsen
This is perhaps a vague question. Trying to cram as many odd jobs as possible into the remaining couple of weeks before I leave WNY, while also being unexpectedly bereft of a vehicle, has left little time for tree-measuring (or for the cadre training materials I've begun to receive- thanks Bob!). While my hands are busy otherwise I find myself looking forward to settling in on Staten Island next weekend and getting into the old-secondary forest of the NYC area and digging into the Cadre coursework, but also turning over some things I've been wondering about how and why different trees grow the way they do. Perhaps this question has an existing solid answer, but if not it might also be an interesting line of inquiry for discussion.

In short, why do western conifers so consistently achieve greater heights than their eastern counterparts, across a range of different environments?

It is perhaps no surprise that western hemlock soars higher than eastern hemlock, living in a high-precipitation mild climate and having to compete with some of the tallest trees on earth, but what of western vs. eastern white pine (or other pines from the strobus subgenus, like sugar pine)? If western white pine was introduced into reasonably suitable habitat in the east where eastern white pine also achieves good growth, would it grow similarly to its eastern cousin, or soar past it in time and achieve similar heights to what it does out west? And vice versa for eastern white pine in a good western site where western white pine hits 230'- would it have the potential to grow to the same height? Are we dealing with genetic adaptations in western white pine from some coniferous height-arms-race that was perhaps more intense in the past, vs. eastern white pine merely needing to outstrip its broadleaf neighbors? Is there some geographic aspect that influences phenotype beyond the impact of genetics alone? I think of planted douglas fir in the east, which never seems to impress relative to its native ranges, in contrast to planted douglas fir in Britain or New Zealand. I know there has been discussion as to the improbability of reports from early loggers in the east of Pinus strobus soaring to 230' high, but if it is a genetic difference with western white pine, might small populations of eastern white pine have in fact hosted similar genes in a throwback to previous environmental pressures, but not enough for any to have escaped the axe as compared to the more common strobus with thriftier genes (unlikely I know, but these are the questions that arise)? Might our eastern conifers in fact still have the genes to grow to greater heights given the right environmental parameters, which may no longer exist here (or if they do, have long since been subsumed to human environment). The outlandishly massive eastern cottonwood growing in New Zealand comes to mind.

If these questions are as yet not well explored in the literature, I'm curious as to what resources I might turn my attention to in seeking to develop some insight. As mentioned I'll be working on the cadre materials; while I'm in study mode I may as well expand my knowledge of other aspects of tree and plant biology.

In other news, Joan Maloof of the Old-Growth forest network is here in my area giving some talks and inducting a couple forests into the network. I was pleased to make her acquaintance last night at jamestown community college, and this afternoon to participate in a hike at the SUNY Fredonia college lodge forest (the main candidate for network membership in chautauqua county) before she gives another talk. She speaks fondly of many who I know from the boards here; it's wonderful that this community of tree-and-forest-appreciators is so tight-knit and connected and speaking with her was an excellent reminder of that fact.

Re: Conifer Height Potentials and Geography

Posted: Wed Sep 09, 2015 11:52 pm
by John Harvey
I have asked these questions for a long time. In my opinion its both genetics and conditions that produce such heights on the west coast. We know its not just genetics because there are many examples of Sitka Spruce and the redwood species planted on the east coast that never get taller than, or even equal to the heights of the native species. A redwood street tree here in San Jose can surpass 150' in less than 50 years. Probably an impossibility back east.
What I don't know is if a tree like eastern white pine or tulip tree would grow taller here than it does in its native range. I've seen tulip tree and sweet gum planted here in a city setting and the growth rate seems similar to what it would be in the northeast, from what I can gather of the ages of the trees anyway. I know that for instance coast redwoods grow faster in parts of New Zealand. In just a 5 hour drive up the coast of California. Say from south of San Francisco area to central Humboldt county there are several places where the trees grow from less than ideal to perfect and pristine conditions and this effectively controls their height potential from 250' max to 380' max in just the span of a 5hr drive. This would be like tulip trees out east reaching a max 120' in Northern NJ and 230' in southern Maryland. Obviously they don't get that tall. So the differences are huge out here for this species from spot to spot.

Re: Conifer Height Potentials and Geography

Posted: Thu Sep 10, 2015 5:16 am
by Joe
I suggest that the best of the eastern trees have all been cut.

Re: Conifer Height Potentials and Geography

Posted: Thu Sep 10, 2015 11:20 am
by Don
I'm thinking topic has been studied with some success, but off the top of my head, the single most salient point that comes to mind is topography in general and elevation in particular. Western white pine, sugar pine and a host of other five-needle pines reside in an elevational belt that runs from 5000 to 11,000 feet, characterized by clear atmospheric conditions (thinking Sierra Nevadas and the Rockies), bright abundant sunlight (southern aspect), and foliage strategies (five needle pines that "open and close" in response to changing light and temps) which take advantage of those elements.
Just a pre-coffee, on my way to town consideration...
Now post-coffee, but with just a few minutes I did a search on above topic, and an article hailing this fella Will Blozan as having climbed the tallest tree in the East, and.... ... story.html
that's not yet "...the rest of the story".
And then, to further address your "tangential curiousity", ... 2mhv3ewgz7
Next, I'll see if I can find something more academic...