The Acadian Forest

Acadian Forests of Prince Edward Island

Canada’s forests are a diverse mix. Forests that you would find growing in Newfoundland are different than the forests of the Maritimes, which are different than the forests of southern Ontario, which are different again from the forests of the BC coast.

Prince Edward Island belongs to the Acadian Forest Region. It’s a region that encompasses all of the Maritime provinces (N.B, N.S., and P.E.I.), areas of southern Quebec, as well as into the northern New England states. This forest region is closely related to the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence forest and to a lesser extent, the Boreal Forest.

[trail title=”Key Species of the Acadian Forest”]


The presence of Red Spruce is characteristic but not exclusive to the Acadian Forest region, as well as Yellow Birch, Red oak, Sugar Maple, White and Red Pine, American Beech and Eastern Hemlock. In low land areas, Black Spruce, Larch and Red Maple are common. Other species of note are White Spruce, White Elm, White Ash, White and Grey Birch, Eastern White Cedar, as well as poplars.

Early writers described this province as an island covered with forests dominated by shade-tolerant species: American Beech, Sugar Maple, Yellow Birch, Eastern Hemlock, and Pine among others. Some wrote of Red Pine masts more than 22 metres tall and 60 centimeters in diameter being harvested from PEI. Others described Eastern Hemlock of more than a meter in diameter and 27 metres tall, and Yellow Birch nearly two metres across and towering above the forest floor. In 1806, John Stewart, wrote one of the first Treatise of PEI, called “An Account of Prince Edward Island in the Gulph of St. Lawrence, North America.” In the book, he states:

Having gone through the catalogue of forest trees, I think it proper to observe, that the timber of the Island, is allowed to be much better than the like species on the neighbouring parts of the Continent, being of a finer, and closer grain and texture, not so subject to shakes and defects, the pines, black birch, beech, and maple, are also larger than they are generally found on the adjacent parts of the Continent.

It is estimated that in the early 1800s, forests would have covered some 95 per cent of this province; the average age of these trees would have been in the hundreds of years.

Hemlock trunkBeing left to it’s own devices, the trees within the Acadian forest would be an uneven, multi-aged stand in structure with an average age of dominant shade-tolerant trees being approximately 150+ years. There would be plenty of standing dead and dying trees, with lot’s of fallen, coarse woody debris in varying states of decay on the forest floor. Natural regeneration of trees would occur within gaps of the canopy. This system would be self-sustaining and provide valuable habitat for old-growth dependent wildlife, such as den animals, cavity nesting birds, mammals, lichens, and much more.

The Mount Allison Dendrochronology Lab processed a tree stump, collected from the Royalty Oaks wooded area in East Royalty, just outside of Charlottetown in 1989. The tree blew down in a winter storm in January of that year and considered to be one of the oldest red oak trees on PEI. The lab determined the tree to be 126 years old. That places this Red Oak starting before P.E.I. join Confederation. They also received a disk from an Eastern Hemlock from the Belfast area that was cut down in 1982. The lab determined that the tree was 311 years old. In other words, it started slowly, as hemlocks do in 1671 ! Here are links to the actual reports from the Mount Allison Dendrochronology Lab.

According to the State of the Island’s Forests report in 2002, only 9,000 hectares of this hardwood dominant shade tolerant forest remains in scattered patches throughout the island. By 1900, the population of PEI had drastically increased to 100,000 and only about 30% of the land was left in forests. During those 100 years, much of the best forested land went under the axe or was burned to make room for agriculture. Many species of mammals were extripated from the island forests, such as bears, fisher, marten, and piliated woodpeckers. Of those remaining forests, many had been disturbed by cuttings, fires, and cattle grazing. Another big problem was the introduction of diseases that has devastated the American Beech and American Elm on PEI as well as other areas.

Within the woodlot of the Macphail Woods in Orwell, PEI, there is a small area by the Orwell River that contains elements of what once was the Acadian Forest on PEI. You can still see the towering White Pines that Bald eagles currently use for nesting. Yellow birch that rise for meters tower over the stream. Eastern hemlocks along the south slope of the stream are over 2 meters around in circumference. Owls can be seen perching and Flying squirrels are found here.

IMG_3050According to the State of the Forest report in 2002, only 9,000 ha of forested area on PEI is in a late sussessional shade dominant forest state, typical of the Acadian Forest. That accounts for less than 2% of the entire island, that at one time, was entirely covered in trees. Since 1900, there was a gradual increase in forest coverage, mostly due to farm abandonment. Today, approximately 50% of the island’s land mass of 560,000 hectares is forested, but much of it is in poor condition, growing on poor worn-out agricultural fields. Much of the this has grown up into what’s termed old-field white spruce. This is an even aged stand of poor quality trees, growing on poor quality soils.

According to the Public Forest Council’s Report in May 2005 “Woodlands Hold the Island Together”, many presenters expressed a desire for Acadian Forest restoration, citing values such as ecological complexity and stability, beauty, wildlife habitat enhancement or simply the spiritual benefits of having access to more timeless, less economically driven woodland.

In the PEI Forest Policy Discussion Paper “Creating a Vision for the Future“, they identified Forests on unploughed lands as one of six critical issues. Forests on unploughed lands, although extensively disturbed in most cases, are different than abandoned agricultural land, and offer the best opportunities for Acadian forest restoration.

Here are some important characteristics:

Soils — Soils are living, complex systems where physical, chemical and biological factors interact. Ploughing and farming soil disturbs the top horizons and causes huge changes in structure, chemistry and biology. It compacts the pores between grains that are important to aeration and water movement, leads to decreases in organic matter and changes in nutrient ratios, and causes major changes in soil flora and fauna (such as worms, insects, bacteria and fungi). Soils that have been ploughed, cultivated, compacted, and eroded by rain and meltwater do not retain native plant seed banks, micro-organisms or animals such as ground beetles and other insects. Unploughed lands have the only remaining forest soils on PEI.

Native species diversity— Forests on unploughed land are home to several hundred species of native plants, including many that are important for economic or ecological reasons. Medicinal plants such as Ground Hemlock, Dwarf Ginseng and Witch Hazel, rarities such as showy orchids and delicate Grape Ferns, and popular wildflowers such as Painted and Nodding Trilliums can all be found in these forests. Increased attention to and research in these areas is finding plants previously thought to be absent from PEI.Although less is known about mosses and lichens, many are unique to forests growing on
unploughed land. Lichens in particular are important indicators of habitat and air quality, and can be used to detect both short- and long-term trends in local environmental conditions. These forests are also important to a variety of birds. Partners in Flight ! an international bird conservation program ! has ranked specific types of older forest communities in this region as high priorities for conservation.

Species interactions — Forests are home to a range of complex interactions that researchers are only just beginning to understand. For example, new research has discovered that fungi on the beaks of woodpeckers play a key role in the decay of dead trees, helping to create high-quality cavity trees that are used many other species. Similarly, Flying Squirrels help spread beneficial fungi throughout a forest; these fungi help trees acquire important nutrients. Ants play an important role in spreading the seeds of as many as 30 per cent of the spring flowering plants in these forests. These and many other complex interactions occur in forests on unploughed lands.

Resistance and adaptation — The diversity of species and ages in forests on unploughed land makes them better able to resist disturbances such as disease, insects and fire. Additionally, recent research from eastern Canada suggests that as forests age they tend to increase in genetic diversity and reproductive success. Older forests may be better able to adapt to climate change, and other emerging issues such as the arrival of new forest insects and diseases.

Carbon storage — Increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been linked to global warming and climate change. Older mixed forests are tremendous reservoirs of carbon, keeping it locked up in twigs, leaves, stems, debris, roots and soil ! and thus out of the atmosphere ! for centuries. Because older forests store large amounts of carbon for long periods, it is widely recognized that maintaining these areas is important in the carbon cycle. Researchers in New Brunswick concluded that replacing older mixed forests with faster-growing trees would lead to substantial net emissions of carbon.


Islanders have expresses a strong interest in forests, especially “old-growth” forests. A woodlot owner’s survey found 60% agreed more efforts need to be made to protect old growth forests. On PEI, the majority of forested land is privately owned, around 80%. The number of individual woodlot owners number over 20,000. That means that are over 20,000 ideas on how the forests should be managed. In the end it’s up to us, we all have to be part of the discussion on the future of Prince Edward Island Acadian Forests.

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