A Small Black Oak Wood by Niagara University

P. M. Eckel

Originally published in Clintonia 17(4): 5-7. 2002.

Missouri Botanical Garden

Res Botanica, April 3, 2003

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A Small Black Oak Wood by Niagara University


P. M. Eckel, Buffalo Museum of Science, June 19, 2002

(See Picture Gallery at end)


The substance of this paper is an assessment of a small woodlot behind (to the east of) Niagara University perhaps less than an acre in area at the junction of Witmer Road (NY Rte. 31) and University Road, Niagara Co., town of Lewiston. It is about a mile east from the Niagara River gorge and a half mile west of the Witmer Rd. exit from the I 90, easily identified on road maps (4307'N, 79 01'W). It was drawn to my attention by Dr. Carol Sweeney of Niagara University during the 1980's.


The woods is a vegetational anomaly occurring in a heavily modified environment of long use by industry and railroads. It is beside the nucleus of the hydroelectric power generating facility of the New York Power Authority (NYPA), occurring just south of the intake canal leading from the reservoir to the turbines on the northern boundary of Niagara University and nearly below the great power transmission lines leading from substations near the reservoir. The landscape to the north and surrounding areas consists of unmown, apparently recently bulldozed "brownfields". The 1965 USGS topographic map of this area shows railroad yards with numerous sidings to the north of what is now University Road, but which in 1965 was a dirt road, including a line of the New York Central railroad bisecting Niagara University and crossing over the NYPA forebay. The 1980 USGS map also shows the NU railroad (as Conrail), but all of these facilities have been removed to date.


The surrounding soil is a thin layer over dolomitic bedrock that is frequently exposed at the surface. The area is wet in the spring (and in places throughout the growing season) apparently due to poor drainage, the soil appearing to be a heavy clay over impervious bedrock. Gravelly soil supported carpets of the moss Campylium chrysophyllum, which seems to thrive in the wet conditions of spring and the harsh desiccation later in autumn when surface moisture is confined to low areas and ditching. Polsters of Ceratodon purpureus are also typical of such sterile environments, especially where there are extensive areas of bare soil. Vegetation in August included often stunted forms of Sonchus arvensis var. arvensis, S. oleraceus, Picris hieracoides, abundant, Centaureum spp. abundant. Early transition to shrub succession included Cornus rugosa with stunted Crataegus mollis, patches of Artemisia vulgaris, Cornus sericea, thickets of Salix interior in low areas, Rhus typhina, Rudbeckia hirta, Solidago juncea, S. cf. canadensis and S. graminifolia. The transition from this generally barren surface to the old growth forest patch, shaded and crowded with an utterly different and native vegetation is striking. Old growth is indicated in the purity of the composition and the rarity of the species assemblages in addition to the apparent absence of physical disturbance. Although the hand of man may be said, from a biological point of view, to be destructive as vital corporations were created and eliminated in this area, it is curious that survival of this wood seems to derive from the deliberate construction of a surrounding berm of soil clearly artificial in origin (although the south boundary seems protected by the elevated road bed of Witmer Road). This berm may bury by several feet the bases of the native trees growing on the periphery. Within this protecting circle the original soil character in which this community developed is preserved: thin, poorly drained soil over bedrock with vernal pools extending long into the growing season, and in the lowest places, moist into the desiccating end of summer. Such berm development exists at Buckhorn Island State Park at the northern tip of Grand Island, at the boundaries of the East-West River Road and an open expanse beside Wood's Creek just north of the road. This open expanse was probably the base for the encampment of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) at Buckhorn for men out of work during the depression of the 1930's. Construction of roads and other public works in State and National parks during this period was a focus for these work corps. It is possible that the berm at the Niagara University (or NYPA) woods has the same origin. What seems foreign to our present culture is the extraordinary pains taken to preserve the hydrologic regimes essential to the viability of the old growth woods at the margins or within this kind of structure.


Having said as much, it seems sad that University Road was constructed through the middle of the Niagara University woods with no protection to vegetation on either side. Buffering effects in the open sun on the forest periphery are enhanced by dense stands of Cornus racemosa, C. sericea, Rhus typhina, Populus tremuloides, P. deltoides, and Salix bebbii. Animal burrows occur in the berm on the east section, small blue butterflies and a raptor's nest (Red-tailed hawk?) were seen. The woods altogether seems to sit in a shallow bowl-like depression with a low spot near its center - this a vernal pool and permanently moist later in the season. The soil here is black (reduced) and no vegetation grows in it, with all spring and late season sprouts probably drowned either during the year, or in years of especially heavy rain. Ambient upland herbaceous composition appears normal otherwise, its high diversity indicating the absence of deer browse due to the isolated and exposed landscape in which the forest sits. Forest composition differs perhaps due to depth of soil or ease of drainage: the section east of University Road seems more of an upland character, it has an increased herbaceous and shrub diversity.


Tree composition is unusual for the region, seen in its most general terms. Kuechler (1964) reported the forest typical of the site to be Northern Hardwoods dominated by Acer saccharum, Betula allegheniensis, Fagus grandifolia and Tsuga canadensis. He gives no oak or hickory species as "other components." Adjacent to this forest type, including areas around the City of Buffalo north into Niagara County, occurs the Beech-Maple type with only two dominants: Acer saccharum and Fagus grandifolia. Various nut trees do cohabit this forest type including Carya ovata, Juglans nigra and Quercus rubra. The type of woods at NU is not listed in the summary of the ecological communities in New York State by Reschke (1990) or the updated version currently in press. The woods is probably too small to represent a representative ecotype.


Still, I know of no other wood dominated by Quercus velutina (Black Oak) and Carya glabra (Sweet, or Pignut Hickory) as this one is. Although Black Oak is typical of upland, sandy stations and 10 and 12" dbh specimens grow up on or out of the berm on the east side. This species is also noted in "poorly drained uplands and terraces" (Jenson 1997) The Pignut hickory, too, is typical of upland and dry stations on well-drained soils. It may occur in thin soils "on edge of granite outcrops" (Stone 1997) but also in mesic to wet habitats (Argus et al., 1987). In the middle of the vernal pools are large trees of Quercus palustris (Pin Oak) and and the hybrid Acer rubrum A. saccharinum as well as typical Acer saccharinum.


Other trees include large specimens of Fraxinus americana (White Ash), Quercus rubra (Red Oak) and a few Quercus alba (White Oak) some to 12" and 20" dbh, Carya ovata, Prunus serotina (6"dbh and dying), Quercus macrocarpa (M. A. Pierce, 1980 (BUF) and Juglans nigra trees to 16" dbh and several regenerating sprouts. On the east side occur Tilia americana (American basswood) 8" and 5" dbh and sprouts, infrequent Acer saccharum. The woods along the road is lined with Sassafras albidum in addition to Black Oak. The west side has many young Carya glabra trees in addition to Rhus toxicodendron as a ground cover, indicating the soil surface is more arid here, especially late in the season, and the herbs fewer. In the east section there is Parthenocissus vitacea and Vitis riparia, all three vines typical of Niagara woodlands. Geranium maculatum occurs throughout. Somewhat in the west, but especially in the east section there is also Erythronium americanum, Thalictrum dioicum, Podophyllum peltatum, their succulent chartreuse fruits in sharp contrast to the brown leaves on the ground in August. In August Circaea quadrisulcata is abundant, as on Goat Island and DeVeaux College woods. Smilacina racemosa occurs as does Monarda fistulosa in summer with Aster sagittifolia. Unfortunately, the invasive weed Alliaria petiolaris (Garlic Mustard) has made its appearance here. A rich shrub flora occurs in the east side with Hamamelis virginiana (Witch Hazel) dominating whereas in the west there is mostly Cornus racemosa and young Carya glabra. In the spring, flowering shrubs include five specimens of Malus coronaria, Prunus virginiana, and at least four Crataegus (Hawthorn) species in some abundance (Crataegus mollis, C. flabellata and C. punctata, C. chrysocarpa: Sept. 10, 1999). As is typical in the harsh conditions under Hawthorn bushes the moss Fissidens taxifolius adds a green touch to the black soil. A 8" dbh Prunus avium occurs here. This European ancestor of the commercial Bing Cherry appears to have a long history from pre-colonial times when these trees were established around area forts and settlements and occur in every woodland in the Niagara gorge area and woods upriver from the cataracts. Later in early summer there flowers Sambucus canadensis (Elderberry). The invasive weed Rhamnus cathartica infests this area. In the western area occurs Cornus florida on the wood's margin and Rosa palustris. How to the communities along the Niagara River stand to benefit from the existence of this and other woodlands like it? 1. Heritage: These old woods are part of the geographical context in which aboriginal fauna, aboriginal peoples, colonial and national communities developed to the present. The curious populations of Prunus avium including trees of great age including many senescent and fallen boles throughout the Niagara River forest areas on both sides of the river deserves investigation into precolonial activity in the region. 2. Models for theoretical restoration of species and reconstruction of ecological community characteristics: Several New York State parks and public and private parklands in Ontario have direct or indirect mandates to maintain or restore the natural aspects of their landscapes. With degradation and absence of adequate historic models, such old forests as at Niagara University provide ecological evidence and verification of theoretical landscape models. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspect of the community at NU is its rich shrub element. Shrubs are typically pioneer species or understory elements, yet at this woods they appear in a stable, climax state, probably due to soil characteristics. Similar stations may have occurred at Whirlpool State Park based on present evidence, and the mainland section of the Niagara Reservation in the City of Niagara Falls, based on old publications. 3. Scientific details of forest types developed on peculiar habitat: Forest types in New York dominated by Oak-Hickory seem related to dry hilltops and "oak openings" or prairie-like habitats. What appears unique about this little forest is its extraordinary Oak-Hickory hardwood development on thin soil over bedrock with the peculiar drainage characteristics. 4. Source of natural diaspores of tree and species types gathered and cultivated for revegetation of public lands with this unique heritage: Diaspores from authentic historic woodlands validate the same or similar genetic heritage of species developed in our area used in restoring adjacent environments.


The woods is a fine place to study Black Oak for those unfamiliar with this tree. One specimen was isolated from the woods by a caretaker of the Witmer road verge, a mown lawn, and is accessible for study, especially in September when its acorns cover the ground. The Carya glabra can be studied also, for its seamless white bark (not shaggy) and leaflets greater than 5 (as in C. ovata) with scales on the leaf surface.


This paper was written in honor of NFBS member Dr. Carol Sweeney for her contributions to floristic information of public interest.


Argus, G. W., K. M. Pryer, D. J. White and C. J. Keddy, eds. 1982-87. Atlas of the rare vascular plants of Ontario. Four parts. National Museum of Natural Sciences, Ottawa. (looseleaf.)

Jensen, Richard J. 1997. Quercus Linnaeus sect. Lobatae Loudon. In Flora of North America. Flora of North America Editorial Committee. Oxford University Press. Pp. 447-468.

Kuechler, A. W. 1964. Potential Natural Vegetation of the Conterminous United States. Manual to Accompany the Map. American Geographical Society. New York.

Reschke, Carol. 1990. Ecological Communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, N.Y.S. Dept. of Environmental Conservation, Latham, New York.

Stone, Donald E. 1997. Carya. In Flora of North America. Flora of North America Editorial Committee. Oxford University Press. Pp. 417-425.

Zander, Richard H. & Gary J. Pierce. 1979. Flora of the Niagara frontier Region. Second Supplement and Checklist. Bull. Buffalo Soc. Nat. Sci. 16. Buffalo, New York.


NU-Power Authority (probably) woods seen looking west from Interstate 90. The woods stands in great contrast to the surrounding industrial environment and is one of the more important sources of information regarding the nature of the aboriginal forested character of this area.


The west (NU) half of the bisected woodland showing the mown verge and the woods edge with its Hawthorns, Black Oaks and Hickory.



The standing water here was not created by the surrounding berms or highway construction, but is the native soil characteristic of drainage poor enough to allow winter and spring precipitation to linger throughout the early growing season. This water regime effectively drowns out the germinating or sprouting seeds of competing species of trees, shrubs and herbs so that black soil with all vegetation absent remains when this water evaporates or percolates down by summer.


This area, in the NU side of the woods, shows a type of vernal pool that favors a peculiar kind of forest type. If the water stood all year, this woods would probably end up being a Red Maple, Silver Maple, Green Ash type of swamp forest. Instead, since the water dries up and often presents a forbidding autumn aspect of dried, cracked clay, this soil type favors a relatively unstudied forest type that favors Oaks and Hickories.


Geomorphological features do not photograph well, but this is a picture of the carefully constructed berm surrounding this small woodland, protecting its botanical and hydrological resources from activities in the surrounding environment. The top edge of the berm can be seen as a horizontal like in the upper quarter of the picture.


Malus coronaria is a beautiful and uncommon native Apple. It grows amid a highly diverse population of shrub species in this unique woodland. There is no Hawthorn with flowers like these. This small tree has no thorns, like a Hawthorn (Crataegus sp.), but the small lateral spurs on the twigs of this species resemble thorns.


These are the fruits of the little native apple in October.