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.
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.
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.