By JOHN HOWELL Could Warwick be a tree Mecca, the place to visit and walk among rare native and old growth trees? Arborist Matthew Largess believes that's possible since Nathan Cornell's latest discovery in Lakewood just a few blocks from Warwick Avenue.
Could Warwick be a tree Mecca, the place to visit and walk among rare native and old growth trees? Arborist Matthew Largess believes that’s possible since Nathan Cornell’s latest discovery in Lakewood just a few blocks from Warwick Avenue.
In a 20-acre wooded site that seems far removed from the hubbub of suburbia with the exception of aircraft on their final approach to Green Airport, Cornell has located an American chestnut.
Once a dominant species in the eastern part of the country, a blight virtually wiped out the American chestnut. There are some pockets of trees that spring from the roots of their ancestors, but then fall susceptible to the blight.
Cornell has found other American chestnuts in Warwick, most notably in a “canyon” not far from Home Depot off Route 2. There are several mature trees in the canyon, none no more than 26 inches in circumference, but nothing like Cornell’s find in an area known as Cushing Wetlands. That chestnut is 44 inches in circumference making it a Rhode Island champion. The largest American chestnut in Rhode Island is 39 inches in circumference, said Largess.
When Largess teamed up with Cornell last fall, he was impressed by his knowledge of trees and his mission to identify and preserve old growth. Cornell has identified a number of oaks that he and Largess estimate could be 300 to 400 years old and maybe older. That means they were standing prior to the American Revolution – prior to the burning of the Gaspee in 1772 – and possibly prior to the founding of Warwick in 1642.
The Cushing chestnut is nowhere near that old. It is probably less than 60 years old. What makes it remarkable, says Cornell, is that it has fought off the blight this long.
At one time there were an estimated 3 billion American chestnut trees in Eastern North America. The tree was not only a source of hardwood, but also of nuts that are considered the best of chestnuts. In the first half of the 20th century, the trees were virtually wiped out by a fungal disease (Cryphonectria parasitica) when chestnut trees from East Asia were introduced here, according to information gleaned from the web.
Largess is interested in learning why this tree has managed to survive. Could it be the location and the surrounding trees; could it be that Warwick is a coastal community; could it even be the nearby residential and commercial developments that have served to isolate this tree?
“We’re in an urban forest. So these pockets are within a city. So those two things make it very unusual. So you find an American chestnut in urban forests near the coast,” he said.
Largess points to sections of scarred bark as signs of the blight and to the upper most portion of the tree that is dead.
“This is a fighter,” he says. As the tree is on city property, Largess said he hopes to gain approval to climb the chestnut and remove the upper dead limbs. He also talks of giving the tree “injections” with the goal of boosting its chances of survival and learning how this could be applied to saving other chestnuts.
And how does this make Warwick an attraction?
Largess, who has conducted nature tours in Rhode Island as well as other eastern seaboard locations as far south as Florida, believes the combination of old growth and diversity of trees coupled with local historic places and events would make the city the center for tours attracting people from across the country. Largess said he has guided tours of different ages and some groups as large as 80 people. What he has found is that people taking these tours are eager to learn, like being outside and are excited by the experience. He can see them leaving Warwick to look for old growth in their communities, increasing awareness of trees and the role they play in the environment.
Largess is not only impressed by Cornell’s knowledge of trees and his mission to find old growth in Warwick, but sees his interest as seeding others.
“It’s a mecca of learning,” he says of Cornell’s finds. “And I’m trying to get young people to get sparked by him to start exploring the forest. What a thing to do with your family ... Hey, let's go and try to find rare trees. It’s a cool idea.”
With the pandemic, Largess has seen a dramatic increase in his business with people calling about trimming and caring for trees in their yards as well as inquiries about what species they should plant.
“People are calling every day. They want to save the trees, they want to plant planting trees never been to planting trees. People want to do just that.”
On his way back to urban Warwick less than 1,000 feet away, Largess ties white streamers so he can find his way back. Cornell follows stepping on briars to break a trail.
“It’s too hard to get to. Briars at both sides in a swamp,” says Largess.
“So we find the American chestnut which is like hitting the lottery. I’ve been looking for those trees for 30 years. Every day I go in the woods looking for mature chestnuts and finds them.