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Wild Side: Bare bones show in winter

It's often hard to see the forest for the trees in the summer. The shapes of the trees, shrubs and ground vegetation are hidden by the profusion of foliage.

It's very different in winter. The dark forms of trees and shrubs stand in sharp contrast with the snow.

One of my favorite winter pastimes is observing the geometry of trees. Each species has its own characteristic range in size and geometry of stems and branches. In winter, deciduous plants are stripped down to their bare bones and it's easy to see their shapes. The color and texture of bark and the form of twigs are additional characteristics to observe for identifying tree species.

This time of year I often think of trees and shrubs as skeletons, because that's what they resemble in winter. They are strong columns of non-living cellulose and lignin xylem cells joined together in bundles to resist gravity, wind, snow and browsing critters. Wood is remarkably strong, capable of being bending countless times in the wind without breaking. The living parts are a thin layer of cambium cells just under their protective bark, hidden underground in the roots and in seeds shed earlier.

Open-grown trees tend to branch out widely to capture sun all around them. Forest-grown trees grow upward with more acute angles between their stems and branches, seeking light in competition with other canopy trees.

The gnarly old sugar maples in our valley bottom are veterans of the days when much of our area was pastured and more open. Their branches reach out widely. Nearly all of those old trees show wind damage and the wounds inflicted by cattle hooves on their roots. Many are hollow from fungus infections that started from those root wounds.

The trees growing around the old maples constitute a hotly competitive young forest. There are many stems of sugar maple, red oak, American elm and hop hornbeam in our woods. They are shooting skyward, tall and skinny as they reach for light during the growing season. The young trees thin themselves competitively; leaving many skinny dead stems still standing.

In places where old wide-spreading "wolf" trees are toppled by the wind or succumb to rot, young seedlings get a chance to grow. It's heartening to see the succeeding generations of trees growing from seeds left by their ancestors.

Gary Zielski, the DNR forester for Pierce County, prepared a management plan for our forest land. It calls for a selective cut of old trees to open the canopy and thinning of younger trees. This kind of selective harvesting releases high quality trees to grow faster and to produce more wood for future harvests. It also provides for better wildlife habitat and light on the forest floor for ground vegetation like the ephemeral spring flowers. Last year, we had a bunch of trees marked for selective harvest during winter and had a bid for the logging operation. With the low price of lumber, the cut didn't happen. I guess we will have to bid the job out again.

I don't pretend to recognize winter trees by their form, bark and twigs as well as Zielski, but as a forest landowner, it is an ongoing enjoyable pastime. Now that I have retired I look forward to spending more time working in the woods and better recognizing the different tree species in winter.

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