If a tree falls in a forest … it might be a case of heart rot

This is what being rotten to the core looks like.

treebridge
Tree bridge
heart rot
heart rot

A mature pecan tree fell a few days ago forming a kind of bridge over the creek.

Once upon a time this tree was somehow injured. Even a small wound can open a tree to infection. An insect or bird may have bored into the bark. A branch may have been torn off. Maybe someone carved their initials. However it got hurt, the wound allowed the entry of a heart rot fungus. I wonder if maybe this tree was ready to die. When a tree dies of this kind of rot it usually means the tree was already suffering. Our unrelenting drought has been particularly hard on pecan trees — even this one living right next to a creek.

Seeing a horizontal tree is pretty rare in the city but absolutely normal in a forest. In a way, trees kind of live two lives. A tree’s first life is the normal sprouting and growing kind. The second life begins after death. When a tree dies, it doesn’t disappear but continues on as a vital feature in its community until it is completely decomposed. That process can take many years.

A fallen tree can revitalize its immediate area. As in life, this particular tree will continue to provide food and shelter for many creatures. But in falling, it has also opened up an opportunity for change. More light will reach the ground and as the tree decomposes it will improve the soil in every way. I look forward to seeing the changes to come.

UC Davis has a nice fact sheet about heart rot here. After I read it I realized some of our pecan trees at home may have heart rot.

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21 thoughts on “If a tree falls in a forest … it might be a case of heart rot

  1. We have an apple tree in our garden, it’s certainly more than 100 years old and it has a huge hollow centre, but last year it gave me 35lbs of apples, and it looks pretty healthy, and it’s really pretty, so I’m leaving it to its own devices.

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    1. That apple tree must be magnificent! Leaving a tree that is alive and producing fruit makes perfect sense to me. A healthy tree can sometimes overcome the rot by growing around it. Plus, those hollows make nice homes for various creatures.

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      1. Yes, last summer we put a pot of geraniums in it. Looked brilliant. Odd, but good. The kids used to have their swing on the tree, but we’ve taken that off. I think that was probably just a bit too optimistic…

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  2. It’s true that a dead tree can be a boon to life all around it. You don’t want too many dead trees, though. I have to admit when I read your title the images of certain people immediately came to mind.

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    1. This might make little sense but I thought of Albert Einstein. His reply to the famous question about the tree falling in a forest went something like: if you close your eyes does the moon disappear?

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  3. Interesting post Debra and I enjoyed the link you gave too. We have a wood near home with lots of decaying Birch trees, fallen Hornbeams and Maples, the fungi especially obvious at this time of year is very interesting to see. I just wish I was better at identifying them. We spent the morning with a mycologist last week and have every respect for their ability to identify many subtle differences.

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      1. I can relate to that, there is so much to absorb and learn and only so many hours in the day, plus the older I get the harder to recall everything. :)

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  4. Recently when neighbors were renovating the home they’d purchased they decided to cut down all the cedar trees on their lot. Two of the three biggest oldest cedars were absolutely hollow and were supporting large colonies of ants as well. The tree guy said it was just a matter of time until they fell in a storm. Now I’m looking around at some of our less than happy looking cedar trees and thinking hmmmmm…..are you rotten to the core? The Hub and I argue a lot about tree culling. I’m sold on well trimmed and spaced trees. He just loves ALL trees and any that are “his”, well, if you want to trim or take one out? It won’t happen without a fight.

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    1. That describes our situation almost exactly. I know some of the pecans need to go. As I said about Gov. Hogg: who wants to water a tree for 300 years? And by letting them grow too closely we do those trees no favour. They are hurting and it will only get worse. But this isn’t even up for discussion at this time with my husband. And I have to admit that the emotional part of me agrees with him: what kind of monster kills a tree?

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  5. We have a wooded area that starts not 20 feet behind our house. There are quite a few trees of various sizes and stages of decomposition about. Species include locust, cherry, mulberry, elm, and oak. I like watching the slow process as they settle to the ground after falling over.

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    1. Me too! Seeing a fallen tree nurse other trees to life is pretty amazing. Not to mention all the life just one tree can support. Your wooded area sounds like a lovely combination.

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      1. We are happy to have that behind us. We cleared a path for about 200 ft so we can reach a paved trail system the city maintains. The deer have decided it is a good trail for them, too. :-)

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  6. I thought you were going to go all philosophical on us and say: ‘ When a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a noise?’ I’ m glad you didn’ t, it’ s too early in the morning.
    When a tree falls here, as they do in my garden, they have honey fungus: Armillaria mellea. If you leave them lying around they send out their sinister, black bootlace rhizomorphs in search of other living trees. Do you have it over there? My garden, an ancient orchard is riddled with it. I lose trees and plants too all the time to it.

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    1. I am not familiar with honey fungus but then I just learned about heart rot. Sounds like it could be a real problem to contain. I see now that my trees have been coping for years with heart rot. Healthy trees can compartmentalize the fungus and grow around it. Fingers crossed.

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  7. Fascinating read, Debra. A few of the trees in my neighbourhood have come down and as they did I noticed they were rotting from the inside out. I didn’t know there was a name for it though. Kind of heart-breaking when you think of it.

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    1. I don’t really feel sad about an old tree dying of natural causes especially when it can continue to enrich its immediate environment. I am insanely sentimental about -my- trees though. They are growing much too close together and really need culling but beyond all sense I refuse to cut any down.

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