Hunting for Hemlocks

A dwindling population of native trees – and how to save them

A dwindling population of native trees – and how to save them

In partnership with the Highlands Biological Station and with permission from the U.S. Forest Service and private landowners, Ken Donny-Clark ‘22 spent the fall 2022 semester searching for Carolina hemlocks along Laurel Knob — the tallest continuous cliff face in the eastern United States, towering at 1,200 feet. Overall, he found more than 30 Carolina hemlocks on the rocky outcropping. But it wasn’t easy.

“There’s a lot of bushwhacking involved,” he said with a laugh. “But I feel like I’ve really earned the data once I’ve gotten it.”

When sampling trees, Donny-Clark removed two cores from each one — a minimally invasive process that does little damage.

Along with the cores he took a series of measurements: the direction he faced when he collected the core, the width of the tree, and the height from the ground to the core site. Then he returned to the lab, where he dried the cores before putting them under a microscope to reconstruct them like a jigsaw puzzle, because most fall apart during the extraction process.

Using a software called CooRecorder, he measured the width of individual rings of the core to build a history for that tree. Tree rings not only inform researchers about the age of a tree, but the weather patterns that existed as it grew — a field called dendrochronology.

He uploaded this data to an online database so that other researchers can access the data.

Finding the optimal climates for these trees to grow can aid conservation efforts by providing the best locations for planting trees to help restore the population.

“We don’t really know much about the growth of Carolina hemlocks and how they’re influenced by climate, so that’s what we’re trying to figure out here,” Donny-Clark said.

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