Let's look at one of PEI's lesser-known coastal habitats: krummholz forest (Photo 1).
Although PEI isn’t far north or high-altitude, we do have some habitats more characteristic of those areas. A good example of this is our coastal krummholz forest. From the German for “crooked wood”, krummholz is characterized by dense conifers - usually White Spruce (Picea glauca) here on the Island - beaten and twisted by coastal winds and salt spray. This probably isn’t what you imagine when thinking about the Island’s original forest, but the krummholz you see today is pretty much what you would have seen when arriving to our shores centuries ago.
This harsh habitat encourages the trees and associated plants to keep their heads low and grow out rather than up. The spruce often lacks needles on the windward side, and develops a windswept look. Black Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum, Photo 2) and Juniper (Juniperus communis, Photo 3) are both relatively uncommon on PEI but found in and around krummholz.
It’s also common to find lichens more characteristic of the far north in these areas. (For an example of a PEI coastal habitat dominated by lichens, see my post on Grey Dunes).
Because of their dense cover and relatively isolated locations, krummholz forests can be havens for birds. They also play an important role in protecting our coastline from storms. While fall hurricanes and winter blizzards can wreak havoc on other types of forests (especially White Spruce growing on old farmland), short, dense krummholz not only withstands the weather, but buffers and protects habitats further inland.
Virtually all of the Island’s north shore - as well as exposed locations on our western and eastern coasts - would have hosted krummholz prior to European settlement. Over the past 300 years, many of these coastal areas were cleared for agriculture, and later for residential, cottage and recreational developments. Fortunately, examples of krummholz remain in all three counties, some protected by PEI National Park or provincial Natural Areas, others maintained by private landowners. The fantastic folks at Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project have been studying and increasing awareness of krummholtz in recent years as part of PEI’s Forested Landscape Priority Place Project.
While krummholz isn’t our prettiest habitat, nor the easiest to visit, it’s an important and cool PEI landscape .