Nature Notes: Evergreens & The Boreal Forest
By Anna Foster
While Trillium, Yellow Lady’s Slippers, and Columbine are starting to unfurl in wooded lots along the peninsula, Dwarf Lake Iris and Marsh Marigolds are on display in the Sanctuary. Throughout the year, Ridges blooms trail slightly behind the rest of Door County. In fact, it’s about 10 degrees cooler in Baileys Harbor than anywhere else in the county on any given day in the summer. The southern facing harbor— the only one on the peninsula— is subject to cool winds travelling all the way up Lake Michigan. This microclimate allows evergreen trees to thrive in the cool, sandy soils of the Sanctuary.
Baileys Harbor is one of the southernmost boreal forests in the United States. Boreal forests are characterized by plants that have adapted to long, cold winters. Pine, spruce, fir, and other conifer (cone bearing) trees dominate the forest. Their small needles have a waxy coating (with the exception of tamaracks) that allows them to withstand harsh winter weather. No matter what time of year you walk through The Ridges, the forest canopy is green.
Meet Some of the Conifers of The Ridges:
White Pine: White Pine trees have 5 needles in a bunch (think of the word w-h-i-t-e to remember 5 needles). Their bark is greyish in color. You’ll often see them along shorelines and wetlands, wind swept and towering above the other trees around them.
Red Pine: Red Pine trees have 2 needles in a bunch. Their bark is distinctively reddish colored and scaley.
Balsam Fir: You’ll often find Balsam Fir trees growing where blowdowns have occurred. With branches shaped like snowflakes and short, flat needles, they resemble your classic Christmas tree (and are often harvested as one, too!).
White Spruce: Spruce trees have needles that grow on the top side of the branches. The needles are very stiff and can have blueish undertones. When I was younger, I learned to tell Spruce apart from other trees because they “don’t like to shake your hand!”
Eastern Hemlock: Hemlock trees tend to shade out any plants on the forest floor. They produce tiny little cones at the ends of their branches. Their needles are very short, growing flat along each branch. If you look at the underside of a hemlock branch, you’ll notice the needles are a silver color on the bottom!
Tamarack (also known as Larch): Unlike the other conifers of The Ridges, tamarack trees are deciduous conifers, meaning they lose their needles in the winter! For about a week in November, tamaracks turn a bright golden color, illuminating the trails and roadsides in Baileys Harbor. The bright green needles of the tamarack are just starting to grow back at this time of year. Unlike the Spruce, Tamaracks are the perfect tree to give a little pet as you walk by.
Conifers provide shelter for many animals in the Sanctuary. Many migrating warblers will nest in conifer trees because of the protection they provide. As birders who are familiar with the area will tell you, it can be difficult to see many of the birds in the Sanctuary. However, you can almost always hear a symphony of songbirds as you walk the trails! Conifers are also an important food source for animals, especially during the winter. It’s not uncommon for deer to graze on conifer branches and seedlings during the winter months. Porcupines also like to munch on the branches and bark of evergreen trees. In addition to providing shelter for the fauna of The Ridges, conifer trees also contribute to the conditions which allow the 29 species of orchids to grow here as well as several other species of flowers that are not found anywhere else on the peninsula.
***All photos from the Wisconsin Herbarium’s Key to Trees