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Northland Nature: Evergreens in the bogs

A black spruce grows in a bog on a winter day. Despite its small size, they can live long lives in these sites. Photo by Larry Weber

Perhaps it is the onset of winter. Perhaps it is the type of weather that we have been having that allows us to see far into the surrounding forests. Or maybe it is just the holidays, but I find that as we enter this new season, we tend to notice the conifers — the evergreens — more than usual.

These trees, often quite large, are with us all year, but during the chill of winter, when deciduous trees are without their leaves, we are likely to see greens of other trees.

To the south of us, the deciduous trees, often called broadleaf trees, prevail.

To the north, the boreal forests tend to be dominant with evergreen trees; leaves are mostly thin and called needles.

Here in the Northland, in this transition zone, we have both. The many kinds of deciduous trees are mixed with about a dozen species of conifers (trees that have seeds in cones, not all looking like the traditional "pine cone") that are native to the region.

In yards and parks, especially in towns and cities, we may find several non-natives growing. But normally, as we pass by local forests and see green trees in winter, we are viewing the evergreens that are native to our area.

Three kinds of pines live here: the large and tall red and white pines and the smaller jack pine. Spruces are represented by white and black spruces, both common. Also common are the balsam fir, often with deciduous trees, and the northern white cedars, in the swamps.

Not quite as well-known are the three kinds of junipers: common, creeping and eastern red cedar.

Canada yew and eastern hemlocks, more common in Wisconsin, grow in scattered sites.

Tamarack, our only conifer to drop all of its needles in fall, is abundant in wetlands. After the tamaracks drop their needles, we are not as likely to see them in the bogs and swamps, but another one growing here becomes easier to see: black spruces.

During my daily walks, I see plenty of pines, balsam fir and white spruces in the upland forests. But out in the wetlands, the green tree standing among the bare tamaracks is the black spruce.

When compared to the white spruces, the differences become apparent. Growing in drier conditions, white spruce tend to be taller and thicker than the black. Needles and cones are also larger. White spruces grow from a wide base to form a terminal sharp point. Black spruces are thinner trees, but also with a pointed top.

Growing in the wetland soil, where nutrition is limited, causes the black spruce to not be as big as the conifers on the nearby dry land forests. This soil may also be the reason why tamarack also growing here will shed needles for winter.

Despite the less than rich conditions of the wetlands, black spruces thrive. Anyone passing by bogs and swamps in the region can notice the abundance of these thin, pointed trees. Here, they live with other flora of these wetlands: tamaracks, sphagnum moss, Labrador tea and leatherleaf. They may look thin and spindly, but black spruces often live a long life in these boggy and swampy sites.

A small-looking tree of about 3 inches in diameter may well be over 100 years old, and their trunks and branches often hold an abundance of lichens. The presence of black spruces in the landscape can be an indicator of bogs.

And even in winter with a snow cover, these trees thrive in the Northland wetlands.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods," "Webwood" and "In a Patch of Goldenrods." Contact him c/o krohman@duluthnews.com.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com. 

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