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Tree on stilts

Tree on stilts

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


A gray bark tinged with yellow helps identify the yellow birch that grows scattered in mixed hardwood and conifer forest. Hardwoods, broad leaved trees that shed their leaves dominate with some conifer needled trees mixed throughout the forest. It is easier to find the yellow birches by looking for trees on root stilts. 

The birches often get started on white pine stumps. Over the course of many years and the pine decays much slower than other tree stumps. As the birch ages, its moderate to large trunk is left standing on roots that wrapped around the pine stump and penetrate into the ground where they spread horizontally. 

Yellow birch by Joseph OBrien [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

The trunks do not attain the size of oaks or other large trees but may have a diameter of one to two feet. Larger trees are known. The spreading roots make it less secure and prone to wind toss but they have the advantage of growing in the interior of the forest where they are protected from strong winds by surrounding trees. 

Visit the Howard Christensen Nature Center on Red Pine Drive three miles north of M-46 (17-mile road) to walk the trails and scan the forest for root-stilted yellow gray barked trees. They grow most abundantly in the lowland wet swamp forest. Red Pine Drive is about six miles west of US-131.

New twigs are greenish with a light pubescence but become light orange to gray and lose the fuzzy pubescence. Somewhat unique are the lenticels that persist through much of the tree’s life. They are large celled light-colored horizontal stripes on twigs, stems, and trunks. Their function aids oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange. Their presence on trunks helps identify the tree. Most trees have lenticels that do not remain obvious on large trunks. 

Narrow horizontally strips of bark with curled ends peel away from the trunk. It is not good to peel the strips because the attached portion is living tissue. One benefit of taking some peeling dead bark is to use as fire starter. It contains oil that burns easily even when wet. 

The paper birch, also known as white birch or canoe birch, will grow in large pure stands. They especially grow in large stands after a fire creates openings. Yellow birches germinate in most soils including mineral soils but does best in mossy moist soils. They grow on moss covered logs or old stumps in moderate moist locations. The farther one travels north in Michigan, the birches become more abundant. We are on the distribution border between habitats where the birch will thrive on moist lowland soils southerly instead of drier soils.

A reason I think the trees are frequently found growing on pine stumps is because they are not good competitors with other tree seedlings. Other trees struggle in the acid conditions on pine stumps. That is something I have not seen stated by forestry professors that study the trees but it my perception. 

The leaves are doubly serrate which means they have teeth along the leaf margins that alternate from a larger tooth to a smaller tooth and back to larger tooth. Pick up a leaf under the tree at this time of year to examine it. Feel the straight veins that served as fluid transport vessels during life. The leaf shape is oval and pointed.

At this time of year, next year’s new growth tissue is already formed and contained ready for expansion with spring’s fluid swelling. The new growth tissue is comprised of tiny dehydrated cells that will not burst their delicate membranes in freezing temperatures. The new tissues are concealed under protective bud scales in a false terminal bud. Examine the bud and notice it does project straight outward from the end of the twig. Like elm buds it buds grows at a slight angle from twig’s end. 

The wind pollinated spring flowers are formed in catkins with wind-blown seeds dispersed in fall and winter.

This tree has unique features to enjoy as you walk nature center trails. Continue enjoying the outdoors this fall.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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