By Robert Fisher, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Intern
Southern Delaware’s lingering drought received a brief respite on July 19th. At 2pm severe thunderstorms rolled into the Milford area, bringing heavy rainfall. This steady inundation brought much needed moisture to stressed plants. While the rain was a blessing for most plants, the storm’s associated lightning and wind had a dramatic effect on some of the Milford Millpond Nature Preserve’s trees.
Abbott’s Mill naturalists prepping for a Native American program in the Lindale Tract encountered an abundance of tree debris and also discovered an impressive lightning strike on a large tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipfera), also known as yellow poplar. The trees appears to have survived, but it will bear the marks of the strike for the rest of its days.
The long scar, which runs the length of this impressive tree, tells us about lightning attraction and how trees handle it. Tulip trees, being one of the tallest and fastest growing hardwood species in the eastern United States, have a high biomass. The combination of height and girth make these trees excellent conductors of lightning in the forest. However, sap is a poor conductor and in a lightning strike, is superheated, becoming steam. From this rapid expansion of liquid to a gas, an explosion occurs. The photo below shows fragments of bark and sapwood blown off of the tree, accounting for the exposed wood. Shards of wood were found over 50′ from the tree and throughout the sub-canopy forest layer.
The high visibility location of this tulip tree on the Lindale Loop Trail will serve as a teaching point for years to come. If you are interested in seeing the tree for yourself, stop by Abbott’s Mill Nature Center and pick up a trail map highlighting our miles of hiking trails. However, you might want to check out the chance of thunderstorms in the area before you venture afield!