When was the last time you found yourself in an intact, pristine forest that had never been logged? How far did you have to travel to arrive there?
You might be misled into thinking that a forest with large cedar trees is one of these unlogged areas. However, look closely and you will probably see large stumps of Douglas fir which became the choice of forest companies at the turn of the century. There are exceptionally large cedar trees in the Morrell Nature Sanctuary, some of which are more than 400 years old. (“Old Doug” is one such tilting giant, located on the northwest side of Morrell Lake).
It takes approximately 175 to 250 years for nature to nourish an old-growth forests under natural conditions. The forest needs at least 2 species of trees that are over 250 years old to be classified “old growth”.
A stand of ancient trees closest to Nanaimo is found 65 kilometres to the west in Cathedral Grove. The largest trees are 800 years old and measure 250 feet in height and nearly 30 feet in circumference. This park covers an area of 300 hectares, some of which people can walk through groomed paths to experience this green, breath-taking canopy. This is a remnant of our province before logging changed it forever.
Cathedral Grove on the busy Alberni Highway displays much like a “forest museum” similar to a tourist attraction by the same name near Duncan on Vancouver Island. For many children, this latter venue will be the closest they every come to being in one of BC’s rain forests. You will have to travel much further west to experience a “wilderness of trees”. The Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park is one such treasure!
The good news is that forests like the one in Morrell will re-establish their colossal trees in another century if the climate remains like that of today.
John Anderson is a volunteer with the Morrell Nature Sanctuary
British Columbia’s lush rainforests are vivid tapestries of towering western red cedars, Douglas fir, giant hemlocks, Big Leaf Maples and sweeping emerald sword ferns emerging through thick moss carpets.
To be designated a “rainforest”, an area must receive a minimum of 250cm of moisture (100 inches) annually. That’s more than twice as much as Nanaimo receives in a year! You’ll know you’re in a rainforest when you see
You can experience these ancient, protected forests in places such as the Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, where cedars are estimated to be over 1,000 years old. Another popular view for ancient landscapes is in the Pacific Rim National Park near Tofino (the Rainforest Trail).
The recreational value of our forests cannot be understated. They are awe-inspiring cathedrals teeming with life, from the microscopic mycelium transporting nutrients under the forest floor to majestic trees. The more we learn about the connectivity within our forests, the more we will be able to appreciate what they mean for our health, and the planet generally.
We are fortunate to have urban, second-growth forests such as the Morrell Nature Sanctuary where you can find ancient cedars left untouched by early forestry practices.
If you haven’t visited the sanctuary, please come and wander through one of Nanaimo’s gems.
John Anderson is a volunteer with the Morrell Nature Society.
Forests don’t have to cover hundreds of hectares. We can create them in our back yards.
The trees we plant prevent soil erosion from heavy rain, and attract biodiversity, especially those flowering species which attract birds who may subsequently build nests. Depending on the size of your property, in BC you can cultivate Douglas firs or Western Red Cedars which will eventually tower several hundred feet. (Some older properties in Vancouver have huge old growth trees which were never felled). Conversely, there’s species such as popular Japanese elms which can be kept trimmed to 20 or 30 feet.
When thinking about trees for your yard, local nurseries sell species which thrive in our provincial climatic zones. You may be surprised about what you’re able to grow!
Our climate is warming: some parts of Vancouver Island are now classified as “9a” – a zone which previously did not exist in Canada. Updated climatic maps show areas in Northern BC that have moved up to three zones higher. Eastern Canada does not show the same extremes as the west coast.
If you need some guidance about growing your own forest, see Natural Resources Canada’s (NRC) “My Tree” app which helps you choose the right tree for your backyard. NRC’s website also allows access to their database (Explore Plants in My Area) where you can enter a city and see a list of plants which grow in that locale.
If a forest is not your first choice, another resource for creating eco-friendly lawns and gardens comes from the UBC Botanical Garden. And yes, they do have an IOS app for “Vancouver Trees” which describes commonly cultivated deciduous and evergreen trees in the Metro Vancouver area.
The Morrell Nature Sanctuary is a wonderful place for families to explore forest life. Maybe we can replicate a small part of that experience in our own backyards.
It's the snow and not the amount of rainfall which sustains forests over the year.
Rainwater falls to the ground and quickly drains into rocky soil, quickly weaving its way to our streams and rivers. But snow melts from higher elevations and trickles down through the forest floor, retaining moisture in the soil over longer periods of time. Snow also insulates the soil from below-freezing air temperatures.
The annual snow pack melt carries organic nutrients to support the endless decomposition and growth cycles so characteristic of British Columbia’s coastal forests. Soil bacteria and fungi thrive in the dampness left by snow to create vast underground networks of mycelium (fruiting as mushrooms) which in turn produces enzymes to break down fallen and rotting logs. The gradual release of snow water into the forest floor every spring is critical to the well-being of our trees, young and ancient.
Conversely, a warming climate leaves less snow pack for this annual process, exposing the ground to lower temperatures and more frequent freeze-thaw occasions. That’s why it’s not uncommon to see very dry forests in the late summer, despite a having a rain-soaked winter. The stress on cedar trees from recent droughts is obvious when we see their scale-like leaves turn reddish brown.
The BC government now has a Drought Information Portal which provides up-to-date information on the drought conditions in the province. Locally, the Regional District of Nanaimo has watering restrictions which vary depending upon the local reservoirs and aquifers.
Fungi and Mushrooms
The word “fungi” conjures images we’d rather not find in our kitchens and bathrooms. However, we couldn’t live without the sprawling mass of fungi which quietly inhabits our forests.
Fungi were the first organisms to come to land from earth’s violent seas, 1.3 billion years ago. Mycelium is a network of fungi cells, and mushrooms are their visible “fruit”.
Despite their tiny size, fungi can break through asphalt and concrete for the benefit of other living creatures. In its micro-cavities, mycelium can hold 30,000 times its weight in wet soil. It prevents soil erosion by honey-combing the earth where water collects where it can be released over time. It has a critical role in sustaining plant life by collecting, storing and releasing nutrients and water to forest life.
Fungi cannot manufacture food through photosynthesis like plants do. Mycelium grows by producing enzymes which digest their surroundings, such as fallen and rotting logs. Over the years, mycelium breaks down organic material which helps form the forest floor. Fungi reproduce by releasing tiny seed spores.
The role of mycelium to a living forest cannot be understated. Mycelia draw nutrients from the soil and in a mutualistic relationship, receive needed proteins created by trees’ photosynthetic activities. Without this cooperative relationship, our forests would diminish or die.
Can mushrooms be eaten?
Any mushroom can be eaten – once! There are many poisonous mushrooms in British Columbia, some of which can secret poisons through the skin. Care must be taken in handling wild mushrooms.
One poisonous mushroom in BC’s forests is the Amanita pantherina. You can see what this group of mushrooms look like on the E-Flora website. A colourful but potentially deadly mushroom sometimes seen in the Morrell Nature Sanctuary is the Amanita muscaria, a bright red and white spotted variety. These mushrooms are also harmful to dogs!
Volunteers are the wonderful folks who sustain the Morrell Nature Sanctuary (MNS). Like thousands of other non-profit societies in Canada, the MNS depends upon the dedication and good will of volunteers to do many things, such as
It might sound like science fiction, but it's been shown that trees communicate with each other in a forest. The world-renowned researcher who studies this phenomena is Dr. Susan Simard at the University of British Columbia's Department of Forest & Conservation Sciences.
Her studies have uncovered an underground web of fungi which connect the trees and plants in an ecosystem. This mutual relationship or symbiosis shares the forests' resources, allowing the entire system of trees and plants to flourish.
Dr. Simard found that webs of mycorrhizal fungi have a mutually beneficial relationship with trees through their roots. Her microscopic experimentation shows that these fungi move carbon, water and nutrients between trees, depending upon their needs.
The saying, "not being able to see the forest for the trees" has some relevance in our experience in the wonderful stands of cedar, fir and hemlock in BC's coastal forests. Visit the Morrell Nature Sanctuary to walk in the forest.
To see and hear more about Dr. Simard's fascinating research, see the YouTube video, How Trees Talk to Each Other.
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The volunteers at the Morrell Nature Sanctuary have produced a richly illustrated Guidebook. It is now available and can be purchased for $10 from the main office at the Sanctuary. Proceeds will go to support the wonderful life and learning opportunities which this forest and lake provide to the public.
It's what most of us know, sense or intuitively feel when we're in the forest:
In British Columbia, we are fortunate to have access to numerous forests, some with ancient, towering cedar and fir trees. In Nanaimo, the Morrell Nature Sanctuary is an easily accessible, urban forest on land which was purchased by Bill Morrell and donated to Nature Trust for all to enjoy. It is rich with biodiversity and ever-shifting light, depending on the time of day or season. In rain or shine, this Sanctuary is good for your health!