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Old Growth Trees vs Witness Trees: What’s the difference?

At Gettysburg Sentinel, wood is the foundation of everything we do. And that means trees are the living embodiment of what we value. So when it comes to these plants, we take things pretty seriously!

Among the many kinds of trees we have the privilege of working with, some of our favorite are old growth trees and witness trees.

We’ve discussed witness trees before, but you might be wondering what the differences are between these and old growth trees. So today, we are going to take time to discuss the importance of both of these.

With this knowledge, you’ll be able to understand the issues around conservation that much more — a benefit whether you are a tree lover, an avid Civil War buff, or simply an admirer of these plants.

Old Growth Trees

An old growth tree

Old growth trees are exactly what they sound like: trees that have survived for a long period of time. Different organizations will have different definitions of how long a tree will need to be around to be considered old growth — some as young as 100 years, others over 200.

These trees have many interesting characteristics, including:

  • Size: One of the most noticeable features of any old growth tree will be its size. That stands to reason — given their age, they have had plenty of time to grow into very large trees. That size often makes them stand out, making a stunning visual impact. However, this might not be true in places that are very dry or high altitude.

  • Canopy: Old growth trees contribute to a forest by providing different features in the canopy — and that diversity helps the health of the ecosystem. The branches and foliage creates depths of shade that lead to microclimates, helping to diversify the amount of life that can be sustained in a forest. That diversity of lifeforms helps to reinforce the overall resilience of the ecosystem.

  • Habitat: Their impressive size and unique structure makes them incredible habitats for a variety of species, including the northern spotted owl, redcockaded woodpecker, and American marten. These trees will often have cavities, crevices, and hollows that give shelter for a wide range of nesting species. And thanks to their thicker bark and developed foliage, they have a lot of protection from all this interaction.

Old growth trees also contribute in a variety of other ways. Their richly developed root systems are part of a complex system underneath the forest floor, working with local fungus to move information and nutrients to other trees. This has been called the wood wide web, and it plays a central role in the health of a forest and everything growing in it.

Today, almost all old growth forests are held under some kind of protection — either as a park or a reserve.

If you tour the Gettysburg battlefield, you’ll find many great examples of old growth trees. These are especially prominent along the Seminary and Cemetery Ridges.

Witness Trees

Witness tree

A witness tree is any tree that was alive during a significant historical event. For our purposes, we are mainly talking about trees that were at Gettysburg during the fighting and still survive today. These trees have made it through the brutality of battle only to emerge through more than a century and a half as living reminders of that past.

These are magnificent specimens. They are, almost by definition, old growth trees — so they are typically large and provide habitat for a number of species.

But witness trees contain two other main features that set them apart from their fellow old growth trees:

  • Historic meaning: Given their connection to moments in the past, witness trees carry the weight of history on their proud boughs. These are living testaments to the Battle of Gettysburg, evoking a sense of awe and reverence whenever we take the time to be with them. They act as a tangible connection between us and those soldiers who fought and died in the American Civil War.

  • Traces of the past: Because of their proximity to battle, many contain evidence of the fighting, like bullets embedded in their trunks and scars left by artillery blasts. These are points of interest for anyone visiting them, but they can also be helpful for researchers looking to gain scientific insights.

These symbols of our history offer us a chance to connect with the past. When we put in the effort to preserve them and study the lessons they have to teach us, we gain a much more profound understanding of where we came from.

If you are interested in visiting witness trees, check out our post on their locations.

Comparison between Old Growth Trees and Witness Trees

Really, old growth trees and witness trees both contribute to our local environment. Because most witness trees are old growth, they contain the same benefits. That includes the ecological features like providing habitat and sustaining the health of the ecosystem.

But witness trees stand out for their significant historical value. That is a meaningful addition to our experience of the battlefield itself — something that can help us feel a connection where we might otherwise struggle. Even if that added significance doesn’t help the health of the ecosystem, it does add to our lives.

Nevertheless, both kinds of trees should be protected and preserved. That’s why we always source our wood sustainably and take great measures to verify the wood we use. Whenever you purchase wood products of any kind, making sure they are sourced responsibly is a great place to start in doing your part to help these trees.

But there is even more we can do.

How to take action

Circle of trees

The more we learn about the beauty and significance of old growth and witness trees, the more we want to take action. By contributing to conservation efforts, we ensure that these trees continue to thrive — to secure the health of local ecosystems and be enjoyed by future generations.

Here are a few ways you can start contributing today:

  1. Support organizations doing conservation work: The Gettysburg Foundation engages in a wide variety of conservation and preservation efforts for the battlefield itself. Part of this mission is working with the National Park Service to acquire and preserve the lands that the battle actually took place on.

  2. Stay up-to-date on conservation efforts: Seek out sources that keep you informed of relevant conservation efforts. This blog is continuing to grow its selection of preservation and conservation material, with a focus on the Gettysburg area.

  3. Plant native trees in your area: Wherever you are, consider learning about the native tree species in your area and planting these varieties yourself.

When you help preserve our old growth and witness trees, you protect these valuable resources for generations to come.

Due to their age and the ongoing expansion of development, older trees are threatened, and there are fewer trees that have survived long enough to replace them. That means we need to work harder to protect what we have and ensure that more trees make it to their full maturity.

Final Thoughts

Old growth and witness trees connect us to our past. They also contribute to the present, giving many species a place to live. That makes it hard to overestimate their value. And given the timescale it takes to replace them, it makes their protection vital to our conservation efforts.

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