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Permian to Present 8: Pre-settlement forests

In the last edition of PEI: Permian to Present, we learned what ancient pollen and early Indigenous sites tell us about the Island landscape between the times of the last glaciation and the first written records. Today, let’s look at those first written records, starting with Jacques Cartier in 1534.

On June 29, 1534, Cartier spotted the north shore of PEI and, over the next two days, sailed west around what is today called North Cape and continued along our western shore. He described the Island as “…the fairest land it’s possible to see, full of beautiful trees and meadows…”. At that time, PEI would have been about 98% forested, the only exceptions being our coastal sand dunes, salt marshes, and a few bogs. The next written record was nearly a century later (Samuel de Champlain in 1632). Dozens of Europeans followed over the next 150 years, and their writings give insight into our pre-settlement landscape.

Photo 1: This old Eastern White Cedar in Prince County is a remnant of PEI’s early forests. At one time, cedar of four feet in diameter would have been common. The species is still common in western PEI today, but most are much smaller.

Western PEI was home to extensive tracts of Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis), some as much as four feet (more than 120 cm) in diameter! They were described variously as fine, valuable and durable, reflecting the utilitarian view of the time. Cedar is still common in Prince County, though trees of that size are rare. It’s exciting to come across a remnant of that era (Photo 1). Larch (Larix laricina), and Ash – both White (Fraxinus americana) and Black (Fraxinus nigra) – were also more common in the west, which remains true today. American Elm (Ulmus americana) were found west and east, their size inspiring adjectives such as graceful, magnificent, excellent, and towering. The ‘Big Elm’ off the Glen Road near Souris harkened back to that time until it blew down in 2013 (Photo 2, taken earlier that same year).

Photo 2: The ‘Big Elm’ off the Glen Road near Souris, which blew down in 2013 (this photo was taken earlier that same year). Huge elm were once common in eastern and western PEI, described by early writers as graceful, magnificent, excellent and towering. Land use change and Dutch Elm Disease made this tree much less common on the Island today.

Early explorers wrote of “great huge spruces”, “the finest groves of pine”, and Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) 3 ½ feet across and more than 80 feet tall (more than 100 cm diameter and 24 metres high). White Pine (Pinus strobus) with diameters of two feet (more than 60 cm) were common and as much as five feet (more than 150 cm) were known. Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) grew to six feet across (more than 180 cm) and Sugar Maples were commonly 60 feet tall (more than 18 metres). Red Oak (Quercus rubra) were described as being “of considerable size”. Today, even our best remnants pale in comparison to these historical descriptions (Photos 3, 4, and 5).

Photo 3: Early explorers wrote of ‘great huge spruce’, like this Red Spruce in Lewes. Red Spruce is one of the characteristic trees of PEI’s original forest but is much less common here today. White Spruce – which thrives on abandoned farmland and disturbed areas – is far more common.

Photo 4: A decent White Pine in Hazelgrove. Historically, pine of this size was very common on the Island and trees as large as five feet across were known. While White Pine is much less common today than it once was, we still have pockets of large, high-quality trees, including in some of our protected areas.

Photo 5: A remnant Red Oak in Canavoy. Our provincial tree was once much more common in the province than it is today, especially around Charlottetown (think of Royalty Oaks) and from there north-east to Tracadie Bay. Red Oaks several feet in diameter still occur on the Island, including in some of our protected areas.

Taken together, these descriptions paint the picture of PEI covered in large, old growth forest with a mix of deciduous and coniferous species. While those species are all still here today, their size, age and extent have been reduced. As PEI’s habitat was different historically, so too was our wildlife. In the next edition of Permian to Present, we’ll explore what animals you would have found here three centuries ago.

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