We have a good, general idea of the present forest on Prince Edward Island. There is documentation on our upland hardwoods, our wetland forests, and our forests and plantations on disturbed land through publications and aerial photography. But important components of our forest have not been studied to the same extent. One of these lesser-studied components is our stunted coastal forest, called krummholz.
You may have seen these stunted and gnarled trees along beaches around PEI, or walked through them at one of our national parks. These forests do not have the lush grandeur of an old-growth hemlock grove, but they play a very important role in the protection of our coasts, as well as providing habitat for a wide variety of species.
Krummholz is a German word that combines krumm (crooked, bent, twisted) and holz (wood). These wooded areas full of stunted and deformed trees are common in mountainous landscapes along the tree line. The constant pounding of the wind causes the trees to remain short.
Our coastal conditions on the north shore are equally harsh in the winter. These salt-laden winds act as natural pruners, not unlike creating bonsai or shearing Christmas trees. The tender growing tips are almost completely dried out, leaving plants that are bushy but stunted. Krummholz plants tend to grow more horizontally than vertically, forming dense mats. They can also grow incredibly slowly and live longer than the same species growing in more protected areas.
This study seeks to develop a better understanding of krummholz and the roles they play in our Island environment. These areas of high winds and dry soil are full of short trees, but trees do not make up all of the life occupying the sites.
We selected six sites with some form of krummholz, and two sites with coastal forests. We attempted to have all of these on land that was under long-term control – either Parks Canada or the province of PEI. We did select one area on private land (with permission of the landowner) as it contained one of the best examples of krummholz and is one of the prime birding spots in the province.
We collected information on the following:
There are four main reasons for the lack of attention placed on krummholz. The first is that they are difficult to traverse. These areas are challenging to walk through, so they get few visitors. In general, what we don’t see and understand, we don’t value.
The second reason is that they are often seen as directly competing with cottages and other developments. We value – and rightly so – the beautiful views from the north shore. Krummholz is often seen as a deterrent to development, nowhere near as friendly and enticing as a lawn.
The third reason is that they generally lack commercial value. We see value in large conifers that we can use for building supplies, value in hardwoods for furniture making or fuelwood, even value in smaller conifers that we can use for wood chips.
The fourth reason is that they are not nearly as beautiful as a healthy Acadian forest, even to those familiar with how complex and resilient they are. While I agree that there is beauty in everything, there is something quite special in seeing a stand of large hemlock, yellow birch, and sugar maple that can literally take your breath away. Krummholz trees are bent and twisted and look nothing like the same species that are growing in more protected areas.
The krummholz acts as a screen, and is made up of plants that can tolerate harsh conditions. It reduces wind speed and catches salt spray. As you move farther away from the shore, the trees tend to get taller, and after a while you start entering more of a mixed forest with larger trees.
They store carbon, not just in the trees but in the many other plants that can occupy these sites. This includes hardy taller shrubs such as bayberry, wild rose, serviceberry, red-berried elder, willow, and wild raisin, as well as smaller plants such as bunchberry, starflower, and wood ferns.
In addition to the diverse plant life, these areas are often rich in birds and mammals. The dense growth provides a perfect spot for birds to hide from predators, while mammals use the areas for both hunting and hiding.
Instead of seeing these areas as wastelands that serve no purpose, we need to look at their true values. They provide wildlife habitat, store carbon, and help slow erosion, and make it possible to grow less-hardy trees that would not survive without this protection.