After open land has been abandoned for a while, a number of herbaceous and woody plants seed into the area and begin growing on the site. In a few years, an “old field” community develops, containing a mixture of trees, shrubs, grasses, and forbs. In time, the trees expand to the point that their crowns close together, a condition known as “canopy closure”. Once the canopies close, much of the existing herbaceous vegetation found in fields vanishes in a few years, because it cannot sustain itself under shady conditions. These young forests are usually dominated by an assortment of early successional trees which are usually characterized by having light, wind-borne seeds or seed that is enclosed in a fruit that birds eat and deposit elsewhere. These early colonizers grow fast, need plenty of sunlight, and don’t live very long, compared to other trees. The role of these pioneers is to occupy the site, develop forest-like conditions, then give way to larger growing, longer-lived trees that are usually developing in the understory. This gradual change from a fast growing, transient forest into a longer-lived, more established community is known as “forest succession.” Early successional forests are transitory in nature, and it is not uncommon to see a lot of dead and dying trees in these stands.
A typical early successional forest in Frederick County might contain black locust, elm, eastern red cedar, tulip poplar, red maple, sassafras, black cherry, persimmon, green or white ash, Virginia Pine, ailanthus, and mulberry trees. Some shrubby species associated with these communities include flowering dogwood, hawthorn, spicebush, crabapple, pin cherry, multiflora rose, sumac, redbud, serviceberry, and plum. Depending on the stage of development, these forests might also have older growth trees like black and white oak, red maple, pignut and shagbark hickories, white ash, hackberry, beech, and white pine growing in the understory, as well. This older growth component has the ability to attain a dominant role in the main canopy as time progresses and succession proceeds.
Sometimes these young forest communities become overrun with invasive species like multiflora rose, bush honeysuckle, autumn olive, and ailanthus to the point that the native, older growth varieties do not become established. This condition will stifle forest succession, and it could result in a stand of invasives, once the pioneer species in the overstory begin to perish.
Early successional forests are favored by wildlife generalists such as deer, red fox, and birds, like cardinals, that eat a variety of foods and prefer dense cover. Animals that eat hard mast like acorns and nuts are normally not very plentiful in these areas due to the lack of available food.
Article by FCFCDB member
Nature Note for 10/22/2017