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Tag Archive | "Red Pine Alley forest"

Green tip mystery


 

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Mysteries in nature niches are always present to please and challenge us. An article in one of the papers where my column appears suggested a mystery “Ranger Steve” might try to solve. Fortunately, I had already worked on it about 30 years ago.

A recent article from the Howard Christensen Nature Center posed a question about the green mystery in the Red Pine Alley forest where the ground is covered with green bough tips that accumulate during the winter. I have not contacted HCNC to clarify the location yet but I think they meant to describe the green on the floor of the “enchanted forest.”

During the 20 years I was director at HCNC, I noticed branch tips from Norway Spruce accumulated all winter on the forest floor. The spruce forest next to Red Pine Alley is known as the “Enchanted Forest” and that is where the green on the forest floor increases all winter. Perhaps something similar occurs in Red Pine Alley.

The enchanted forest has canopy openings that allow sunbeams to light carpets of moss. The scattered carpets appear as electrified green glowing ground cover. Enchanting carpet glow provides its own mysterious experience for all that walk the forest on Nature’s Habitats Trail. I think the trail has been rerouted to circumvent the enchanted forest since I left but we can still peer into the forest.

Walk into the enchanted forest repeatedly from fall to spring to notice the growing number of branch tips on the ground. Trees self-prune branches that do not produce more food energy than they consume. Lower branches that do not receive adequate sunlight to produce abundant sugar are sealed off by the tree and die. Trees spend energy producing new growth on sun-exposed branches, where needles can produce more sugar than they consume. For some mysterious reason those sun-exposed branches are the ones shed in winter.

Branches from the tree trunk produce tip buds that increase their length. Lateral buds grow side branches from trunk branches. Buds formed in the summer have embryonic tissue ready to expand branch length and width when spring arrives. Waiting all winter encased by protective bud scales, the highly nutritious bud tissue is ready for spring’s burst of growth.

It took me a few years to discover why the forest floor was covered with spruce branch tips. At first the mystery made no sense for trees to shed branch tips exposed to sun. It would not benefit the tree to lose new growth buds that provide the best sunlight exposure. Self-pruning occurs at the base of branches closest to the trunk where sunlight is more limited.

Why were branch tips being shed? During summer, red squirrels find choice insects, bird eggs and other food to sustain themselves. When winter arrives, food is not abundant. Red squirrels hungry for winter nutrition eat the buds along the sides of branches. In the process, they sever branch tips that fall. All winter branch tips increasingly accumulate and cover the understory. They cannot produce roots or grow new trees. The tips decay and add nutrients to the soil.

The squirrel pruning process is like us cutting branch tips that make the trees and shrubs grow more compact and thick with branches. We do this on ornamental plants and Christmas trees to provide aesthetic appeal. Squirrels do for their own nutritional benefit and not to shape tree growth.

Discover and solve mysteries awaiting your outdoor experiences.

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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