Can't find what you're looking for? Please contact us.

Four clues to help identify old forests

3 min read / June 2, 2022 / By Liz Thompson

Old forests are more than big trees

Tall, majestic trees are the iconic image of old forests. But they’re only part of the picture. There are lots of subtle signs that help us identify old forests: mosses, fungi, fissured bark, even stunted trees.

Moss: The perfect tree nursery

Moss is everywhere in old forests. They love moisture, especially the moisture on an old fallen log.

Mosses also collect moisture and hold it, making a moss bed the perfect nursery for a new seedling. These tiny seedlings—a yellow birch and a hemlock—grew from seeds that drifted down from high in the forest canopy. The mossy log offers moisture, nutrients, and shade for their growth.

As the log decays, the young roots will find their way to the forest floor. There, they will reach deep underground for more nutrients, moisture, fungal partners, and the stability of rocky mineral soil. Mosses are an important clue to identify old forests.


photo: Eric Sorenson

Mushrooms: Nature's recyclers

Mushrooms and other fungi are plentiful in old forests because there are many dead trees in all stages of decay.

Wood is an ideal habitat for many fungi—some can actually kill trees while others simply take advantage of nutrients in trees that have already died.

Scalycap mushroom is of the second kind—it lives on dead trees and helps further their decay and the return of nutrients to the forest soil. There are hundreds of species of scalycaps, found world over from Siberia to Tasmania. Just observe, though—they are definitely not edible.

Furrowed bark: Trees get wrinkles too

Old trees often have deeply furrowed or very scaly bark. As a tree grows, new wood is added each year, pushing the existing bark out and causing it to crack or peel.

Old black gum trees will develop deep fissures, and these provide great habitat for all kinds of organisms, including lichens, mosses, and insects.

Want to see some old black gum trees in Vermont? The Vernon Black Gum Swamps (found in the Vernon Town Forest) are a wonderful and easy place to visit. Without even leaving high ground, you can see very old trees with deeply fissured bark, a mossy forest floor, and rare ferns.

Slow growth: Old trees aren't always big trees

Old trees aren’t always big. These cedars on a bluff near Lake Champlain aren’t especially huge but some are at least 200 years old!

That’s because cedars grow very slowly in these shallow rocky soils. Cedars that are over 1,000 years old, but only a few inches in diameter, have been found in similar places in Canada.

This kind of area is called Limestone Bluff Cedar Pine Forest and has many rare plants as well. It is easy enough to spot along Lake Champlain’s shores but it only extends a short distance inland.

Together, we're protecting Vermont from the ground up!

Donate Today! donate today