The Juniper Mystery of the "Poo Trails" (Charlotte, NC)

Hello all,

This is a specific question for a very specific and unique area, but I am posting anyway in hopes that someone might be able to point me in the right direction for some answers. I’ll provide as much detail as I can:

There is an area in Charlotte, NC with a very unique patch of woods. It was the former site of a wastewater plant built in 1929 due to Little Sugar Creek running through the area, with sewage piping running through the forested area. The farmland next to it steadily became suburbs during the late '50’s, and the water treatment plant changed locations slightly. Now there is a trail maintained by a biking organization running through the former property, often called the “poo trails” by locals because of the smell you can sometimes encounter from the former sewage.

The area is also overrun by ornamental plants that have escaped cultivation throughout the lifetime of the nearby suburbs. These invasive plants are very established, but there are many native plants that still thrive, including many oaks, maples, beeches, poplars, pines, and hickory. Overall, the area has still escaped becoming a monoculture of exotics, an impressive feat in urban Charlotte.

Since beginning my exploration of this area, I began to notice the junipers (Juniperus virginiana). Or, rather, the lack of them. It’s not that there aren’t any, they’re all just…dead. More often than not I’ll find skeleton trunks that are long gone, and I suspect the only reason they haven’t crumbled into woodchips by now is their special resistance to rot. Most of them are young, but a few closer to the center of the woods are the oldest I’ve found so far, also long dead. It’s started to concern me. I know this isn’t natural for most wild areas here, due to my own observations at other sites further away from urbanization, preserves in particular. They’re known to be fairly hardy trees, and tolerant to many kinds of conditions.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the expertise to even know where to begin with this mystery, but if there’s any chance someone on here has any idea, has observed something similar, or can suggest some next steps I could take to gather more information, I’d really appreciate it. Feel free to ask for photos or any more details, I’ll be happy to provide it.

Thanks for stopping by to read my beast of a post, and long live our indigenous plants!


It could be a fungal blight outbreak of some kind - a bit of searching suggests there a few different diseases impacting that species right now.
Red cedar dieoff in Connecticut
Cercospora blight

There’s probably not much you can tell from the old tree skeletons, but if you find a newly dead or dying one, inspect the foliage carefully and see if you can find any sign of fungal growth or fruiting bodies.


I wonder if this may be a case in which it would be useful to collect physical specimens to be inspected and/or put in museum care. Is there a nearby university with a biology department?


The junipers need ample sunlight to thrive. If they are being topped by taller oaks, beeches, etc they eventually die off. Many patches of forest I frequent were former pasture or field and are full of the skeletal remains of old junipers. The first cohort of new trees in abandoned open field is often times juniper (eastern red cedar). Quickly maples move in and become established, and eventually oaks, hickories, etc. Juniper not being a particularly tall tree, can’t compete with taller fast-growing trees and loses the battle for the canopy.


Here’s an example of one I found that kept up with the encroaching forest as the canopy closed in. It was able to do so because it grew along the edge of a road getting enough sunlight. Behind it in the understory are many dead junipers.


This was my first thought too. This species can come into disturbed recently abandoned fields, but eventually be overtopped by other trees in which case it dies. In those cases it is an early successional species and that is just how its ecology works. Interestingly, on dry acidic ledges with open canopy, at least in Vermont, it can switch ecological roles and become very old as gnarled specimens amongst the rocks.


That’s a good idea. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of time on my hands right now, but I can certainly reach out to a local establishment and direct them towards the area should they decide to investigate. Thanks for your response!

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Thank you for pointing this out! Honestly, it seems most likely. I noticed similar patterns after visiting some other sites. My concern is that I’m not seeing any alive junipers or seedlings in areas with ample light. Again, could be a different case of the trees previously being choked out by invasive plants, since other sites I’ve seen that are carefully managed for invasives don’t seem to have this absence.

Thank you again for your response, I’ll definitely be observing the area with this idea in mind.

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Which, no doubt, is why some consider it “invasive.”

I’ve never heard juniper framed in that light before, but I suppose to some people it fits the criteria, if only for a finite amount of time. I personally wouldn’t call it invasive by any stretch, at least no more than red maple or birch is as far as its ability to colonize disturbed places.

If these dead junipers have moss on the horizontal limbs, i wonder if they also have a muscicolous lichen: Gomphillus americanus. look for patches of light greyish green growing over (and killing) moss, with little stalks (use a hand lens, its tiny) I often see it on moss on shaded-out junipers; here is an observation of mine that has a bunch of photos for reference

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