Written by Amanda McManaway, MountainTrue Forest Keepers Coordinator, December 18, 2015
On a beautiful—and unusually warm—December morning, over a dozen folks gathered near the large stone gate at the entrance of the town of Montreat to begin the Hemlock Education Hike, organized by MountainTrue and the Hemlock Restoration Initiative. Once everyone was signed in and introduced to the crowd of fellow hikers, we all carpooled to the trailhead to begin our climb up to Brushy Mountain and the mature stand of Carolina hemlocks that waited for us at the summit.
Luke Cannon, local naturalist and an expert in Appalachian ecosystems, and Margot Wallston, the Hemlock Restoration Initiative’s Coordinator, led the hike up to Brushy Mountain. Hikers were educated about Eastern and Carolina hemlocks, the hemlock woolly adelgid, hemlock resistance against and mortality due to the woolly adelgid, treatment options, and the differences between ecosystems at varying elevations.
Throughout the ascent, Luke pointed out chestnut tree stumps, rhododendron, mountain laurel, and rattlesnake plantain, and explained their roles within the ecosystem. Luke and Margot explained the benefits of hemlocks, both Eastern and Carolina, in their native ecosystems. Such benefits are numerous and include a wintering habitat for birds and mammals and regulation of water temperatures along streams. The physical shape of hemlocks and their needles allows them to shed snow from their branches more easily in winter—instead of snapping from the weight of the snow like hardwoods—and thus, provides a nice, warm place for birds and mammals to seek shelter. Studies have also shown that hemlocks found along streams and rivers regulate the water’s temperature by keeping it shaded and cool.
During our break for lunch at the Buck Gap shelter, Margot explained more about the hemlock woolly adelgid, a small, sap-sucking insect that decimated hemlock populations. She utilized many visual aids and described the chemical and biological treatment options for saving hemlocks. The chemical treatment utilizes a systemic herbicide. The biological treatment option involves predator beetles that devour the woolly adelgid. Margot explained the nuances of each treatment option and how, with a balanced approach of treatment, the future looks hopeful for the hemlocks.
Upon reaching the summit of Brushy Mountain, we stood among the Carolina hemlocks and took a moment as a group to appreciate our surroundings. We were all thankful to Margot and Luke for sharing their knowledge with us about hemlocks and to the Town of Montreat and the Montreat Retreat Association for caring for and protecting their trees. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day for our Hemlock Education Hike.