Update: The forest has unfortunately been pillaged. You’ll find just 3 trees with burls, but mostly just very young trees sparsely spaced. You’ll find two trees at the entrance with burls- one with heavy growth on the left and one with medium growth at the right. Further down the path, you’ll see a tree with very young burls starting. Aside from that, it was actually a sad sight.
Perched on a sandy bluff above Burlington’s North Beach is a little patch of woods that looks like it was designed by Disney illustrators for a haunted forest scene.
Each tree sports multiple “burls” – enlarged growth areas – along its trunk. The trees are box elders, fast-growing members of the Maple Family whose branches are easily snapped off by the strong prevailing southwest winds coming up the Champlain Valley – particularly fierce here as they come off the lake. The wind prunes the trees into some wonderfully fanciful and grotesque forms.
Walk around a bit, and you’ll find on just about every tree, places where new branches are sprouting. These give a partial picture of how the burls were formed. The multiple sprouts enlarge the trunk slightly, then, when the pliant green sprouts begin to get woody after a couple of years, they are heavy and brittle enough to be susceptible to breaking off in heavy wind. A glance at the ground will reveal not just loads of broken grey branches, but bare sandy soil dotted with bits of brick, old china, and other artifacts suggesting a former dump – of the old St. Joseph’s Seminary, which can be seen due east. Box elders love to grow anywhere that light sandy soils are frequently disturbed – by wind, fire, floods, or human activity.
The Abenaki Indians of the region called box elder pilkimizi – literally “new land tree.” The indigenous name takes note of the tree’s propensity to colonize “new land” – such as appears on point bars of rivers. Each summer the fecund box elder drops a prodigious load of seed in the form of winged samaras, just like other maple trees; in riparian areas, the scores of sprouting samaras look like they are creating new land, as the river level sinks through the summer.
Know Before You Go
Walk or bicycle north on the bike path about a mile from the Burlington Boathouse at the foot of Main Street. Just before you come to Lakeview Cemetery on your right, you will see a steep footpath, following the edge of a ravine, on your right. Follow this footpath to the top of the bluff, and continue another 100 yards, past the open field to your left. As you come up the little rise, you will be entering the Faggoted Forest.