One of Vernon’s unique places is the J. Maynard Miller Town Forest, home of several stands of black gum trees (Nyssa sylvatica), some of them more than 400 years old. This is the only place in Vermont this species of tree can be found. Typically the black gum is found south of the Mason-Dixon line, where it is known as the tupelo or black tupelo.
In 2016, the State of Vermont proposed to designate the black gum swamps as a Class I wetland, providing the highest level of protection. (The town has declined to pursue that classification.)
One black gum tree in the Vernon forest was measured to be 435 years old. At another location in southern New Hampshire, a black gum was found to be 562 years old. These trees are not only among the oldest trees in New England, but they may be the oldest broadleaf deciduous trees anywhere in North America.
To visit the town forest, travel south on Rt. 142 from Brattleboro, going past Vernon Village. After going a bit over a mile from the Village, make a RIGHT turn onto Pond Road and go under the train overpass. Travel down Pond Road to Huckle Hill Road (town swimming pool is on your left) and make a right onto Huckle Hill Rd. When you come to a “Y” fork, go right onto Basin Road and go to its terminus at the cul-de-sac, where you can park. The signboard will show you several trail options to reach the black gum swamps.
Brochure and trail map of the J. Maynard Miller Town Forest published by the Vernon Recreation Department in 2019.
When visiting the swamps, the black gums can be distinguished by their thick, alligator-like bark and the jagged way their crowns have developed over centuries of their brittle branches breaking (such as in ice storms) and re-growing.
There are at least seven different swamp areas with black gum trees (totaling 28 acres) within the municipal forest and and several more nearby on private property and in the Roaring Brook Wildlife Management Area. Their presence is thought to be the result of a period 3,000-5,000 years ago when the climate in this area was warmer, the range of the black gums moved north, and the trees survived in protect pockets such as here.
J. Maynard Miller (1905-1998), a local dairy farmer, for whom the forest is named, convinced the town back in the early 1970s of the importance of this tract and persuaded the town to buy it to ensure its permanent protection. Miller was the longtime owner and operator of the Miller farm on Route 142 across from the Town Office Building. Miller had a passion for the preservation of the black gum swamps in the forest, so when the town purchased the property (to prevent it from being turned into a commune in the 1960s, the story goes), they honored Miller by naming it after him. Miller, a graduate of the University of Illinois, served the town of Vernon in several elected posts such as selectboard member. He was the first president of the Vernon Seniors.
The Vernon Black Gum Swamps are a rare natural community found at the edge of the normal range for this type of wetland and contains some very old trees; some black gum trees aged at over 400 years old. The swamps contain a thick layer of peat (partially decomposed plant material). The peat and living vegetation in the swamps provide longterm carbon storage, playing an important role in mitigating climate change. Unlike some natural communities that may regenerate relatively quickly after a major disturbance, the Vernon Black Gum Swamp complex formed over thousands of years. This wetland complex is unique and is irreplaceable.
The swamps provide unique wildlife habitat, including suitable habitat for a high diversity of amphibians, three species of bat, a number of bird species, and mammals. The wetlands are home to at least five rare, threatened, and endangered and two uncommon plant species. The Black Gum complex has significant floodwater storage capacity, and its dense vegetation stabilizes the soil and slows and filters surface water, protecting areas downstream from pollution and sedimentation.
This wetland is significant because of it’s contribution to Vermont’s natural heritage as a rare community that is accessible to the public. A visit to the Vernon Black Gum Swamp complex and surrounding forest offers a truly unique experience providing excellent opportunities for photography and aesthetic enjoyment.
Vernon Black Gum swamp complex has been left alone for hundreds of years and supports one of the oldest forest communities in Vermont.. The crowns of the old black gum trees and the fire scars along their trunks and seen in the peat layer are records of the weather events (wind, snow, ice and fire) that have shaped the swamps over time.
The swamps that make up the Vernon Black Gum Swamp complex vary in size from a tiny one -tenth acre to approximately 5 acres and are dynamic systems.
The individual swamps are amazing places where giant, rare, and ancient black gum trees tower above a vibrant multi-shaded green colored floor created by an incredible diversity of sphagnum mosses. The mosses grow upon a deep layer of peat that has been measured to about 11 feet deep in some places. The surface and near-surface waters within the swamps are highly acidic.
The sphagnum moss ground cover is interspersed by hummocks of ferns. Cinnamon and royal ferns dominate but the These wetlands have a high rating in one or more of the listed 10 functions and values. They are healthy, in great condition, and intact.
A Class I wetland is considered exceptional or irreplaceable, and deserves the highest level of protection under the Vermont Wetland rules. Criteria and subcriteria have been developed to evaluate these special wetlands.
Undisturbed state listed-threatened fern and rare Massachusetts fern are also associated with this community. The pronounced hummock-andhollow topography, due to fern rootstocks and rotting logs creates a mosaic of water and light regimes, allowing a range of species to inhabit the swamp. Mountain laurel, a shrub which is uncommon throughout the rest of Vermont is abundant in some of these swamps. The very rare smooth holly, a shrub, and the rare narrow blue-eyed grass are also present in some of the black gum swamps.
Liz Thompson, [one of the authors of] Wetland, Woodland, Wildland (Vermont’s guide to natural communities) cites Vernon Black Gum Swamp complex as one of only a few examples of a Red-Maple-Black Gum Swamp, an extremely rare natural community in the state. Vernon Black Gum Swamps support a high diversity of amphibian species. The ten species observed within the Black Gum wetland areas are eastern newt, wood and green frogs, gray treefrog, spring peeper, American toad, redback, yellow-spotted, and dusky salamanders. These swamps are also considered suitable habitat for the uncommon blue-spotted salamander, although it has not yet been documented to occur.
Black gum swamps make excellent habitat for black bear and wood duck. Bumblebees were observed to nest in cavities of giant downed black gum logs. There are insects whose life histories are entirely dependent on black gum and these may inhabit the swamps.
Some further information about the black gum tree from Wikipedia:
Nyssa sylvatica’s genus name (Nyssa) refers to a Greek water nymph; the species epithet sylvatica refers to its woodland habitat.
The species’ common name tupelo is of Native American origin, coming from the Creek words ito ‘tree’ and opilwa ‘swamp’; it was in use by the mid-18th century.
While these trees are often known as simply “tupelo”, the fuller name black tupelo helps distinguish it from the other species of the tupelo genus (Nyssa), some of which have overlapping ranges, such as water tupelo (N. aquatica) and swamp tupelo (N. biflora). The name “tupelo” is used primarily in the American South; northward and in Appalachia, the tree is more commonly called the black gum or the sour gum, although no part of the plant is particularly gummy. Both of these names contrast it with a different tree species with a broadly overlapping range, the sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), which does produce an aromatic resin. Another common name used occasionally in the Northeast is pepperidge.
On Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts, this species is called “beetlebung,” perhaps for its use in making the mallet known as a beetle, used for hammering bungs (stoppers) into barrels.
Nyssa sylvatica grows to 20–25 metres (66–82 ft) tall, rarely to 35 metres (115 ft), with a trunk diameter of 50–100 centimetres (20–39 in), rarely up to 170 centimetres (67 in). These trees typically have a straight trunk with the branches extending outward at right angles. The bark is dark gray and flaky when young, but it becomes furrowed with age, resembling alligator hide on very old stems. The twigs of this tree are reddish-brown, usually hidden by a greyish skin. The pith is chambered with greenish partitions.
The leaves of this species are variable in size and shape. They can be oval, elliptical, or obovate, and 5–12 cm (2–5 in) long. They have lustrous upper surfaces, with entire, often wavy margins. The foliage turns purple in autumn, eventually becoming an intense bright scarlet. Deer are extremely fond of the leaves on seedlings and saplings, to the point where large populations of them can make establishment of the tree almost impossible. For comparison, mature trees are largely left alone.
The flowers are very small, in greenish-white in clusters at the top of a long stalk and a rich source or nectar for bees. They are often dioecious so a male and female tree in proximity is required to set seed, however, many trees are also polygamo-dioecious, which means they have both male and female flowers on the same tree. The fruit is a black-blue, ovoid stone fruit, about 10 mm long with a thin, oily, bitter-to-sour tasting flesh and very popular with small bird species. There are from one to three fruits together on a long slender stalk. They are a valuable energy food for birds, especially the American robin.
Nyssa sylvatica forms a large deep taproot when young that makes transplanting difficult. Because of this, it is fairly uncommon in cultivation and the nursery trade.
Additional characteristics include:
Bark: Light reddish brown, deeply furrowed and scaly. Branchlets at first pale green to orange, sometimes smooth, often downy, later dark brown.
Wood: Pale yellow, sapwood white; heavy, strong, very tough, hard to split, not durable in contact with the soil. Used for turnery. Sp. gr., 0.6353; weight of cu. ft., 39.59.
Winter buds: Dark red, obtuse, one-fourth of an inch long. Inner scales enlarge with the growing shoot, becoming red before they fall.Leaves: Alternate, often crowded at the end of the lateral branches, simple, linear, oblong to oval, two to five inches (127 mm) long, one-half to three inches (76 mm) broad, wedge-shaped or rounded at base, entire, with margin slightly thickened, acute or acuminate. They come out of the bud conduplicate, coated beneath with rusty tomentum, when full grown are thick, dark green, very shining above, pale and often hairy beneath. Feather-veined, midrib and primary veins prominent beneath. In autumn they turn bright scarlet, or yellow and scarlet. Petioles one-quarter to one-half an inch long, slender or stout, terete or margined, often red.
Flowers: May, June, when leaves are half grown. Polygamodiœcious, yellowish green, borne on slender downy peduncles. Staminate in many-flowered heads; pistillate in two to several flowered clusters.
Calyx: Cup-shaped, five-toothed.
Corolla: Petals five, imbricate in bud, yellow green, ovate, thick, slightly spreading, inserted on the margin of the conspicuous disk.
Stamens: Five to twelve. In staminate flowers exserted, in pistillate short, often wanting.
Pistil: Ovary inferior, one to two-celled; style stout, exserted, reflexed above the middle. Entirely wanting in sterile flower. Ovules, one in each cell.
Fruit: Fleshy drupe, one to three from each flower cluster. Ovoid, two-thirds of an inch long, dark blue, acid. Stone more or less ridged. October.
Nyssa sylvatica grows in various uplands and in alluvial stream bottoms from southwestern Maine and New York, to extreme southern Ontario, central Michigan, Illinois, and central Missouri, south to southern Florida, eastern Texas, and eastern Oklahoma. It also occurs locally in central and southern Mexico. Optimum development is made on lower slopes and terraces in the Southeastern United States.
Nyssa sylvatica is found in a variety of upland and wetland habitats in its extensive range. Its flowers are an important source of honey and its fruits are important to many bird species. Hollow trunks provide nesting or denning opportunities for bees and various mammals. It is the longest living non-clonal flowering plant in Eastern North America, capable of obtaining ages of over 650 years.
Nyssa sylvatica is found in a wide range of climates, due to its extensive distribution. It commonly grows in both the creek bottoms of the southern coastal plains, to altitudes of about 900 meters (3000 ft) in the Southern Appalachians. These trees grow best on well-drained, light-textured soils on the low ridges of second bottoms and on the high flats of silty alluvium. In the uplands it grows best on the loams and clay loams of lower slopes and coves.
The species occurs 35 different forest cover types. When found on drier upper slopes and ridges, it is seldom of log size or quality.
Nyssa sylvatica is an important food source for many migrating birds in the fall. Its early color change (foliar fruit flagging) is thought to attract birds to the available fruit, which ripen before many other fall fruits and berries. The fruit is quite marked, dark blue, in clusters of two or three. The sour fruits are eagerly sought by many kinds of birds, including: American robin, Swainson’s thrush, gray-cheeked thrush, hermit thrush, wood thrush, northern cardinal, northern mockingbird, blue jay, red-bellied woodpecker, yellow-bellied sapsucker, northern flicker, pileated woodpecker, eastern phoebe, brown thrasher, eastern bluebird, European starling, scarlet tanager, gray catbird, cedar waxwing, and American crow, all primarily eastern North American birds migrating or residing year-round within the tree’s range.
The limbs of these trees often deteriorate early, and the decayed holes make excellent dens for squirrels, raccoons, Virginia opossums, as well as nesting sites for honeybees.
Nyssa sylvatica is a major source of wild honey in many areas within its range. Hollow sections of black gum trunks were formerly used as bee gums by beekeepers.
The wood of Nyssa sylvatica is heavy, hard, cross-grained, and difficult to split, especially after drying. This resistance to splitting led to its use for making mauls, pulleys, wheel hubs, agricultural rollers, bowls, and paving blocks. The wood is also used for pallets, rough floors, pulpwood, and firewood. Since the wood is very tough, resistant to wear, it has been used for shuttles in weaving.