. . . even though my leaves and branches are dead, they will be important to many species of fungi, plants and animals for decades to come.
I am a large tree standing on a gentle slope in the forest. I have been here for more than 100 years.
I am a deciduous tree — so every autumn my beautiful green leaves die and fall to the ground. Every winter the wind blows through my branches and many are broken and fall to the ground. But even though my leaves and branches are dead, they will be important to many species of fungi, plants and animals for decades to come. They will continue to be important to me, for they will rest at my feet and keep the soil from washing away from my roots.
[Photo Velvet Shank Mushroom. Photo by Tammy Mercer.]
The leaf litter will keep the soil moist so many kinds of wildflowers and other plants can grow. Small mammals and insects will find shelter under the leaves. As the leaves and branches decay, they will replenish the soil with nutrients. This will make a good place for all kinds of seeds to take root, including my own.
The dead leaves and branches on the ground create a perfect place for migrating sparrows to hunt for food. Thrushes may build a nest on the ground using my old branches and leaves as nesting material and as perfect camouflage.
My bark provides hiding places for many kinds of insects and spiders, and my leaves are food for many kinds of caterpillars. This makes a rich foraging place for birds to find food. Some birds even hide seeds in my bark.
Blue jays, cardinals and many other kinds of birds will take sticks from the ground and fly them back up into my crown. They will build a nest from these sticks and lay their eggs nestled in my branches.
[Photo - Downy Woodpecker. Photo by Judy Remington]
About 30 years ago, a summer storm knocked off one of my beautiful large branches. Spores of fungi blew into the wound and started to spread their roots, called mycelia, through my trunk and branches. Insects landed, carrying in different kinds of fungi. Some beetles laid eggs, and their caterpillars began to chew their way under my bark.
As the fungi and insects began to soften my wood, a downy woodpecker began pecking through a knot in one of my branches. At first he was just looking for insects in my bark. One spring he kept boring and eventually made a hole big enough to make a nursery. His mate came along and did a little more pecking, and soon she was laying eggs in the nesting hole.
The next season, a chickadee pair claimed the hole, did a little remodeling and raised a family. A few years later, a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers made the hole bigger and nested. The cavity they left was just the right size for bluebirds or great crested flycatchers to use in the future.
[Photo - A raccoon nestled in a tree cavity. Photo by Tammy Mercer.]
One autumn, a flying squirrel found the cavity, and began to stash seeds and nuts for the winter. While the winter wind blew, the little squirrel was safe and snug deep in my trunk with plenty of food to sustain her between naps.
Year after year, more kinds of fungi and insects moved in to eat and grow in my wood. Pileated woodpeckers have been after those insects under my bark for many years. Now they have started digging deeper into my softened wood high up on my trunk. Later that season five young woodpeckers flew from the nest.
Since woodpeckers carve a new nest every year, a wood duck couple claimed the cavity for their nest the following season. Within a day after hatching, the fluffy little chicks jumped from the nest, landing in the soft leaf litter piled under my branches and marched off with their momma to the nearby pond.
One season, gray squirrels carried lots of dead leaves and branches up to make a large nest in my crown. The next year the old squirrel’s nest made a perfect platform for a hawk to build a nest of sticks.
Each year the fungi spread farther into my wood, and grow fruiting bodies out of weak places in my bark. The fruit can be very beautiful, and they provide food for squirrels and other creatures.
My wood becomes weaker with each season. Eventually I will be dead. But that will not be the end of my story. Many creatures will still be able to find food and shelter in my trunk and branches for years to come. They will build new nests or use the old cavities for shelter. They will find many insects to eat and hide seeds in my bark. The large gap where my limb was blown off 30 years ago will shelter young raccoons, wintering owls and other creatures too numerous to name.
As my bark becomes loose, mourning cloak butterflies will survive the winter as adults under the bark, and bats may even find places to roost. Hollow places along my trunk will be perfect places for woodpeckers to drum, letting others know that this is their territory.
One day a storm will blow my trunk to the ground. I will still keep soil from washing downhill in a heavy summer rain. I will still provide food and shelter for many, many creatures. As I rot, mosses and lichens will grow, and eventually tree seeds and other plants will take root in what is left of my soft tissues. I will replenish the soil for all the trees, plants and other living things of the forest for centuries to come.
Tammy Mercer is an MPRB and EBWG part-time naturalist, an employee of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
Note: This article was published in the Fringed Gentian™, Winter 2009-2010, Vol. 58, #1.