When Cucumbers Grew On Trees

One of my favorite idle musings is pondering the way this landscape looked to the European settlers when they first arrived here. Recent archaeological evidence has shown that the landscape was far more managed by Native American tribes than we once thought, but nonetheless, large tracts of uninterrupted forests and old growth trees remained.

I’d like to tell you about a couple of species that were once abundant here but have retreated into near obscurity in the last century. In 1824, H. G. Spafford described the forests of southwestern Chautauqua County in the Gazetteer of New York State as “extensive forests of tall majestic white pine, too rapidly falling before the lumberman’s axe.” Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) is the largest pine and is considered one of the most valuable tree species in eastern forests. It is estimated that only 1 percent of the original trees remain untouched by extensive logging operations in the 1700s and 1800s. Mature trees are often more than 200 years old and some live for more than 400 years. At maturity, this species can reach over 160 feet tall and more than a yard in diameter. Although white pines prefer well-drained soil, the species is remarkably flexible and also grows well in wetlands and rocky areas.

Currently white pine is present in scattered locations across the county and is often in areas too wet for agricultural crops. For this reason, it is present in many of Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy’s preserves. The long and slender bluish-green needles, which incidentally contain five times the amount of vitamin C that lemons do, are borne in bundles of five and give the tree a particularly airy and delicate appearance despite its stature. The cones are also slender and drooping and reach up to 6 inches long. Among the species’ many other favorable attributes is a tolerance for heavy shearing, making it an excellent choice for windbreaks and screens along boundaries and open fields.

Another tree that Spafford mentions throughout his description of the County is cucumber tree (Magnolia acuminata). Though rarely spotted today, this lovely member of the magnolia family was once a prominent species here and was valued for its durable, straight-grained wood, which is very similar to that of the tulip (yellow) poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera).

The species grows relatively rapidly and matures in 80 to 120 years, reaching a height of over 80 feet. The leaves are simple dark green ovals that can reach up to 10 inches long, and the flowers look somewhat like an open tulip with slender petals that are yellowish-green. The fruit is an odd-looking green “cucumber-shaped” cone that bears reddish-orange seeds that protrude as the cone ripens in late August or September. Because this species prefers wet areas, it is also present in many of Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy’s preserves, usually as an understory species only recently approaching maturity.

In closing his description of Chautauqua County, the prescient Spafford says, “Though perhaps out of place, I cannot close this article without suggesting to the Chautauqua people the good policy of reserving belts of trees, to screen their fields, farm-buildings and orchards, from the chilly winds and gales from the lake. A screen of evergreens, around the barn and stables of a stock-farm, would be worth some tons of hay every winter, to say nothing of other, and important advantages.”

I echo Spafford’s sentiments and hope that, if you are planning some spring plantings, you’ll give these species consideration as a valuable addition to your landscape that reflects our region’s natural heritage.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local nonprofit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, visit www.chautauquawatershed.org, find us on Facebook or call 664-2166.