The forest and the trees

Russell Wangersky
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It’s funny what catches your attention; the way that once you start seeing something, you can’t stop seeing it. Like the pin cherries.

Now, they may not be the actual pin cherry, Prunus pensylvanica, but if you saw them, you’d know what I meant. They’re usually a small shrub-like tree, four or five feet tall, with distinctive pointed leaves like other members of the cherry family.

The cherries themselves are bitter and small — much more pit than fruit, a sharp wakeup call on the tongue if you decide to taste them. (Take my word for it: it doesn’t matter how ripe and soft the cherries get, they’ll still taste like you had decided to chew bark. But the birds like them.)

They have a shiny, reddish bark, and you can find them in drifts in the areas between road and heavier woods. On the edges of bogs and barren lands, there can be more pin cherry than anything else, anchoring areas where birch — more finicky about water table — won’t even set down roots.

And that’s more obvious this year than in many others.


Because the pin cherry is suddenly dying.

Not just one or two trees, not just one or two stands.

All over the Avalon — and even well off the Avalon — pin cherries are dying. And they’re dying from the ground up.

Those that haven’t died back completely this year have developed a weird reverse tonsure: the only leaves left are at the very tops of the trees, making it look like a dead tree boasting a small, strange, leafy green hat.

Week after week, the hats get smaller, and the top-leaves are strangely crinkled, like the edges stayed too small while the leaves grew, torquing them into little leaf roller coasters when they should be flat.

Once you start seeing it, it jumps right out at you.

On areas of broad-based low brush, like Route 70 around Perry’s Cove, there are now sections of ground that look burned over, even though there hasn’t been a fire.

In other places, well into the woods, you come across the same bare trees, red-brown sticks with not a leaf on them, not one or two but numbering into the hundreds.

Look right as you drive the Trans-Canada towards the west coast and whole hillsides come sharply into focus: more pin cherries, all dead.

They’re supposed to be a pretty hardy species, one of the first trees to come back after a forest fire; they do have a shallow root system, but with our weather this year, finding water should have been no problem. Maybe they drowned.

Now, pin cherries have a bad reputation anyway: they’re regular hosts for black knot, a fungal infection that delights in killing off damson plum trees.

No matter how well you steward damsons, eventually black knot spores will cost you your trees. And some of the dead and dying pin cherry trees do seem to have a lot of black knot — but they’ve weathered that for years, even when the fungus cuts far enough into the bark to make the galls bleed sap.

And far from all of the dead trees are knotted up with galls.

In fact, up close, many of them look like otherwise completely healthy leafless trees: the bark’s not marked or pitted, there’s no sign of any infection.

But pin cherry isn’t in any way a commercial species, so maybe few people in the province are giving the die-off any more than a passing glance.

But when that glance lands just right, it’s startling.

The die-off reminds me a lot of travelling through Western Canada and seeing for the first time the footprint of the mountain pine beetle on the boreal forest.

But that’s a harvestable species, much more worthy of attention.

When it’s not directly hitting our wallets, we have a hard time seeing the forest for the tree.


Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Trans-Canada

Geographic location: Western Canada

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Recent comments

  • Doug Smith
    August 30, 2011 - 08:41

    Russell, the Pin Cherry is a weed. The sooner it's gone the better. As you pointed out it likes to pass on black knot to other plum trees. My plum trees are battling black knot every year thanks to the useless Pin Cherry.