By JOHN HOWELL "Imagine," says Matthew Largess, "walking out here and picking up the Hope Diamond. That's what we could have here." Looking down from the rocky embankment, the prospect of finding anything of value appears remote to impossible. It's a
“Imagine,” says Matthew Largess, “walking out here and picking up the Hope Diamond. That’s what we could have here.”
Looking down from the rocky embankment, the prospect of finding anything of value appears remote to impossible. It’s a rocky canyon with a tiny free-flowing stream at the bottom. Trees reach upward from the rocky ground. Some are bent with upper branches broken. They could be 80 to 90 feet high, maybe more. Others, their wide girths pocked with burls, are stalwart sentinels in this 10-acre corner of Warwick that is believed to be a remnant of old growth forest never harvested by colonists because pulling the logs out was too much work and the land was unsuitable for farming.
Largess, a licensed arborist who runs Largess Forestry in North Kingstown, is devoting his time to identifying and preserving old growth forests. He has teamed up with Nathan Cornell, 23, a member of the Warwick School Committee, in identifying old growth trees in Warwick. They have already identified a number of old growth trees, including a giant oak on Toll Gate High School property thought to be 300 to 500 years old.
But it’s what Cornell found in the canyon behind the big box stores on Route 2 that has Largess so excited. Largess credits Cornell with recognizing the canyon for its diversity of species and the fact that it has been untouched by development for possible centuries. He says Cornell is “brilliant” for his find and speculates the canyon could become an attraction to environmental scientists around the world.
And the treasure: the Hope Diamond?
It’s a tree that, as Cornell says, once made up the “Redwood Forest of the East.”
And it’s not just one tree, but countless that Largess and Cornell believe are American chestnuts. In a walk through the canyon Friday morning, Largess and Cornell paused nearly every 10 feet to identify native trees – hickory, white oak, red maple, tupelo, dogwood, black oak, American beech, American hophornbeam, and then the diamond, the American chestnut. Some chestnuts are no more than pencil-thin saplings identifiable by the errant one or two serrated spear point leaves clinging to branches. Others are straight as a pole and upwards of 50 feet. These are mature trees, and that’s what is so extraordinary.
As Cornell points out, a fungus mistakenly introduced to this country from Asia wiped out the chestnut forests, estimated to number three to four billions trees, in the first half of the 20th century. The Chinese chestnut, which is resistant to the blight, was introduced, and strains combining the two species have been developed with hopes of reviving the American chestnut.
While the fungus kills chestnuts, it does not affect the roots of the trees. New growth springs from the roots but dies before it reaches maturity, Cornell explains.
The question is, are there mature chestnuts in the canyon?
There are a few healthy, mature American chestnuts in the east, with one of the largest in Lowell, Maine, said Largess. If what Cornell and Largess suspect is true, the Warwick canyon could be the home of several mature chestnuts. According to the Wikipedia, 600 to 800 of the trees have been located in Northern Michigan. Largess points out that the Michigan trees are not in the range of native chestnuts and were probably planted by settlers. They could be hybrids, he said.
Largess points out the Warwick trees may offer answers to reintroducing chestnuts elsewhere. Midway through the walk, Largess observes that growing along side many chestnuts are American hophornbeam, distinguishable by their flaky bark. The canyon hophornbeam are generally no bigger around than a baseball bat. Could there be a symbiotic relationship between the two species that has given the chestnut blight immunity?
That, or some other characteristic or feature of the canyon could explain why these chestnuts resisted the blight. Or, does old growth offer an answer?
Largess believes the canyon could hold many secrets, if not other treasures. He views it as a pod separated from the surrounding environment that could contain as of yet undiscovered insects and species of plants and animals.
To alter the canyon, which is made up of city and private property, would be sacrilegious in the opinion of Leslie Derrig, chair of the Warwick Land Trust. The trust has taken up the cause of identifying Warwick’s old growth trees. Last Tuesday, the trust featured an online power point presentation on old growth trees prepared by Largess and Cornell. It can be accessed at https://1drv.ms/p/s!Aqz3rkuo2uUGgVULEgkh3Xlkbqpd.
Derrig said the goal of the trust is to have the city deed its canyon land to the Land Trust as well as to gain agreements from others who own canyon land to preserve the site. She views the canyon as a place to conduct research and for educational programs.
Largess has gained city approval to take “rings” from fallen trees in the canyon to determine their age and species. As for the “Hope Diamond” of American trees, Largess is certain that the smaller trees are chestnuts, but he wants to wait until spring when they have leaves to declare the larger and mature trees as American chestnuts. If they are, he’ll be sending leaves for DNA purposes to the American Chestnut Foundation.