The intense scarlet red color of the black gum tree during autumn is truly a sight to behold. The fall display can include foliage in shades of orange, red, purple, and yellow, but typically, an incredible crimson color dominates. Black gum leaves drop early, so make time in September to see not only the red of black gum leaves, but also the yellow of yellow birch and beech leaves, the maroon color of red maple leaves, and the golden hue of ferns dying back against a backdrop of dark forest green shades of spruce and hemlock evergreen trees.
A short hike along the Black Gum Trail, about a 1.35 mile loop within J. Maynard Miller Municipal Forest in Vernon, will take you back in time and transport you hundreds of miles south of the Vermont border, based on the habitat type you will soon experience.
Forester Bill Gunther loves this place. Even after serving more than 30 years as a forester, he describes it as special. He has led many organized hikes along the trail, pointing out all the unique features of the landscape, naming the tree species there, and those that are no longer, like the American chestnut. He is animated and full of passion when he stops by the “sap-sucker” tree, which only a picture could explain why this particular tree is worthy of that title.
You can take a virtual tour of the Vernon Black Gum Swamp and its history by joining a hiking group for an hour, led by a number of knowledgeable folks, including Bill Gunther; Laura Lapierre, the Vermont Wetlands Program Manager; Bob Zaino, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Lands Ecologist; and Paul, the son of the man who helped to have the area protected over 40 years ago.
As Bob mentions in the video above, he has been waiting 33 years for the Agency of Natural Resources Departments—Forest, Parks and Recreation, Fish and Wildlife, and Environmental Conservation—to come together to share the responsibility for and appreciation of an area. The Black Gum Swamp made this happen in 2017. Bill is planning to retire soon, and now he can retire having accomplished one more of his goals. Thank you, Bob, for your years of service and for introducing hundreds of people to the Black Gum Swamp over the years!
But why is this place so special? Let’s explore it just a little bit right now to peak your interest in making the trip yourself one day. At least seven swamps supporting black gum trees are found within the Vernon Town Forest. This tree species is relatively common 400 miles to the south, but in Vermont it is rare, a remnant from the past when the climate was warmer, approximately 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. Some of the trees within this forest are truly old growth, estimated between 400 and 450 years old. That is a tree worth hugging!
The bark of the black gum is like alligator skin, with furrows as deep as the length of your fingers. The trees are surrounded by swamp waters covered with a blanket of bright green moss, nestled between hummocks and tussocks. The peat accumulation is thicker than a man is tall. Ferns dominate, either as bright green leafy foliage reminiscent of the world of dinosaurs or as skeletal brown stalks, giving the ground a disheveled look and an almost neglected feel. The forest can only be described as medieval or pre-historic. Standing within these swamps, reaching out and touching a black gum tree, you can let your imagination take you to another world far beyond Vermont’s borders, into another era.
The Latin name of the black gum tree is Nyssa sylvatica. The genus Nyssa is taken from a water nymph in Greek mythology. A hike into the swamps during a rainy day provides an almost mystical feel to the environment, and maybe that is how we should experience this area. Perhaps if we are silent as we approach, we might see a water nymph for which these trees are named.
A fall hike offers intense colors of plants readying themselves for the winter ahead and a quietness of space and time. A spring hike is quite the opposite, but equally as beautiful. The bright yellow-green, almost fluorescent color of the new growth on the mosses, new ferns unfurling, and trillium blooming gives a hiker visual beauty and also the chance to smell and almost taste the new life coming out of winter. The Vernon Black Gum Swamp provides habitat for at least 54 species of birds, and the frogs that also breed there add their voice to the chorus. Therefore, springtime in the swamps is musical as well, providing beauty to the ear. It is a world waking up and stretching again towards the sun.
A visit to the Vernon Black Gum Swamp is a truly unique experience, regardless of the time of year or the weather, rain or shine, spring or fall. Be a time traveler, an explorer. Follow the trail into the swamps, find an ancient tree, and breathe deeply. Time almost stops when you are here.
Join us next week on another wetland hike to enjoy the fall season!