Observing the birth of a multi-trunked tree

Published 2:00 pm Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Last week, on the way in to work along the Arboretum’s service road, I did a double-take after I passed what appeared to be a tiny shrub at the roadside, ablaze in scarlet and gold. With our woods now wearing winter’s drab hues, and the sparkle of autumn color now long faded, these leafy clusters really stood out.

These “shrubs” decorating the roadside were actually young trees – red maples, to be exact. They were pared down to the ground earlier this year during a site maintenance project with a brush blade. Following their cutting and a little rest, they had sprouted back robustly. Perhaps because the leaves had emerged much later in the season, they had also experienced a delay in their development of fall color.

They were certainly making up for having missed fall’s celebration, and were a spectacular sight. Maybe it was the surrounding dull colors that day that caused the leaves on these miniature trees to glow in the misty, grey winter landscape. But their beauty was equal to that of any delicately cultivated specimen found in a glossy garden magazine – as striking as a ‘Firepower’ Nandina, of which they were reminiscent.

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These small plants are the infant forms of trees that we may be familiar with as single-trunk trees, but if disturbed when young, and left alone, they will develop into large multi-trunked trunked specimens like those seen throughout the Crosby Arboretum. We tell our school tours that this is what happens if you stop mowing your lawn.

Take a walk through our Savanna Exhibit, and you will see multi-trunked saplings dotting the grasslands. In only a few years, these young trees – largely sweetgum, black gum, sweetbay magnolia, and red maples – will grow by leaps and bounds, soon easily surpassing the height of the tallest basketball player. They have tough, extensive, and fast-growing root systems that are able to withstand the prescribed fire used periodically as a maintenance tool in the Savanna Exhibit.

Red maple (Acer rubrum) trees are a “chameleon” tree common throughout the eastern U.S. that will grow in a variety of site conditions, from moist bottomlands and swamps to much drier areas. It is usually found at heights of around 40 to 50 feet, although it can get much taller. Red maples are a very easy tree to grow, making them an excellent choice for those new to gardening. They are great shade trees, and will grow in part shade or full sun. One identifying characteristic of red maple the fact that it seems to always have red coloring somewhere on the tree – from brilliant red flowers and fruit, red-tinged emerging leaves in spring, or scarlet fall color. Its petioles (the leaf stems) are also red-tinged.   

From the towering to the tiny – red maple is also a tree used for bonsai. Its wind-blown samaras will seed prolifically in landscape beds, or wherever else it can gain a foothold. Small trees are easy to pluck from these areas and train into bonsai, or transplanted into other areas of your yard.

A variety called Drummond’s red maple (Acer rubrum var. drummondi) is common in swampy areas. This variety can be identified by its larger, broader, leaves and the distinctively woolly undersides. If you can rub the “fuzz” off of the bottom of a red maple leaf, you can be pretty sure it is a Drummond’s red maple.

Deer will browse red maple, and the seeds are consumed by song birds and small mammals. In larger trees that develop cavities, birds such as ducks, owls, and woodpeckers will take up residence. In the winter months, the sculptural structures of the multi-trunked forms of these trees are strikingly beautiful in the forest. Adding to this beauty, one sometimes finds a patchwork of green and gray lichens clinging to the trunks, which are much more apparent in the winter, with less competing greens in the landscape.

On his fungi field walks at the Arboretum, Dr. Juan Mata, a biology professor from the University of South Alabama, will usually point out that lichens are not harmful or parasitic to the trees. Instead, they are a symbiotic relationship between two separate organisms, a fungus and an algae. The fungus contributes the physical structure, water and minerals, while the algae is capable of photosynthesis and produces carbohydrates and food that is of benefit to the fungus. Lichens are capable of surviving much longer than either of these two organisms separately. They are found grow on other surfaces besides tree trunks, such as rocks, or even the occasional bicycle that is left to sit out in the weather just a little too long.

Other native trees that tend to develop multiple trunks are river birch, American holly, and yaupon holly. Common ornamental tree species include crape myrtle and tree-form ligustrum. Whether native or ornamental, a multi-trunked specimen tree is very attractive when planted in front of a stucco wall, which draws attention to its structure. Using landscape lighting to highlight the tree adds another layer of beauty in the landscape.

The Arboretum will offer an “Introduction to Birding” program on Saturday, January 12th from 10 to 11 a.m. On January 19th, join us for a Wild About Winter workshop, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., open to both teachers and homeschool educators. The training is free to Hancock and Pearl River County teachers. Our fifth annual Forge Day takes place on Saturday, January 26th from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., featuring metalworking demonstrations by area blacksmiths and knifemakers. Bring in those dull knives for free sharpening.

For more information, visit our website at www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu or call the Arboretum office at 601-799-2311. Links to our social media sites are available on our home page. We are located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59).

For further exploration: Read about the definition of forest succession. What is the difference between “old-growth” and “virgin” forest? Where are the oldest forests found in Mississippi? In the United States?