Of Titans, Clones, and other Fun Guys

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ON MY WALK THIS EVENING  I stopped to admire an enormous Beech tree that towered above me.  The smooth, satiny trunk was a shade of light ash and it reached with great purpose out of the snow, reminding me of the muscular arm of a Titan, or that of a warrior from Troy.  It seemed as though it was grasping for the moon.   I was surrounded by saplings of the same species, and several other mature specimens were peppered throughout the stand, which covered about 2.5 acres, or one hectare.  I wondered which of these saplings could in fact be ‘clones’ of the giants in the canopy.  Which ones were genetically independent?  Or were they in fact titans in themselves?

The American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) is a master of illusion.  A person could be fooled into thinking there are more trees in the forest than there really are!  You see, as our native Beech tree sends roots out beneath the soil, genetically identical specimens pop up from these roots creating ‘offspring’ around the original.  Beech tree colonies, or ‘stands’, are very often made up of these clones.  To elaborate, while a Beech tree’s roots grasp down deep into the soil to support the biomass above ground, they also creep just below the organic soil of a forest, sending up whips that appear to be baby trees, or saplings, when in truth they are genetically a single tree.  The next time you find yourself among a Beech stand you may well be surrounded, both overhead and underfoot, by one colossal organism!

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An excellent American Beech specimen is proof that Fagus grandifolia is the Black Bear’s highway to the sky (and to a great snack)!

Although a Beech tree can create many trunks from one plant, it will still produce seed to provide a safety net knit with genetic diversity.  These little bundles of evolutionary traits, otherwise known as Beech Nuts, are much appreciated by the Black Bear.  When travelling through a Beech stand, one can often see claw marks tattooed up the length of a Beech tree long after a bear has hauled itself up the smooth, grey trunk in its pursuit of comfort food before winter.

Beech bear nest 2.jpg A Black bear ‘nest’ where the bear pulled the branches in to sit upon and munch on the Beech nuts.

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Speaking of comfort food, the nuts of the American Beech were used to flavor the chewing gum of the same name (Beech Nut). Another tree species that weighs in, with a member covering a record breaking 80 hectares, is the Trembling Aspen.  However, the largest recorded living organism, as of 1999, was in fact a fungus from Washington State.  This fun guy wasn’t significantly showy in the way of fruit (those things we call mushrooms), but over it’s thousand-year lifespan it did manage to distribute itself underground to effectively cover about 600 hectares.

The American Beech has a reliable companion in the Yellow Birch, often found co-habiting  Muskoka’s hardwood forest canopy with the dominant Sugar Maple, the odd Black Cherry, and Ash. The Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) reproduces only through a miniscule seed that, in order to germinate let alone grow to maturity, must land on exposed soil or a rotting stump to avoid the dense, smothering carpet of Sugar Maple leaves on the forest floor.   Yellow Birches will cling to rock faces alongside Hemlocks, and can stand on ‘legs’ long after the stump they grew around for years has decomposed.

During a hike through a Beech and Yellow Birch stand, one may also be intrigued by the beauty of the Indian Pipe (Monotrope uniflore), a parasitic vascular plant species that relies on the roots of trees for a source of carbohydrates.   The Indian Pipe contains no green chlorophyll and therefore cannot harness starches and sugars (carbohydrates) through photosynthesis.  It is a species that has evolved to form a symbiotic relationship with these trees.  This fleshy little ‘flower’ uses a fungal bridge to feed on carbohydrates from the tree.  This allows it to live in dense shade while it simultaneously creates by-products that provide compatible nutrition for the tree.  Now that’s a win- win-win situation!   One can usually find the delicate white canes of the Indian Pipe on the forest floor among Beech and Yellow Birch from Late July through September.

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May the forest be with you R.K.



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