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OutDOORs with Coggin Heeringa: Twigs Gone Wild

Halloween greeting cards? What a curious development in friendly communication, but cards racks are filled with witches, cats and pumpkins. On cards that picture a witch, it seems she is riding or holding a broom, and not a nice tidy broom like the one we use these days. A witch’s broom looks like a stick with a messy bunch of sticks tied on the end.

During October, as they drove around Door County looking at trees, many folks probably noticed trees that looked like they had a messy bunch of twigs popping out of the trunks. These weird clumps are called Witch’s Brooms, though apparently it now is politically correct to call the phenomenon “brooming.” In bygone times, people blamed anything they didn’t understand (especially things that seemed evil) on witches.

Brooming can occur on a variety of plants, but it is easiest to spot on trees. Somewhere along the trunk, it appears that the branches went wild and in a very real way, they did.

Reference books report that these clumps of gnarled thick twigs can grow to be 10 feet across. From a distance, witch’s brooms look like eagle nests.

The really spooky thing about witch’s brooms is that it’s caused by an infection or irritation. Bacteria and viruses, insects and mites, fungus and even other plants can cause brooming. But whatever causes the stress, you’d think that when a branch is infected, it would get puny and shrivel up. But no! These branches have an amazing growth spurt. Cells reproduce like mad. Twigs grow thick and lush.

Some trees with brooms survive and even thrive, but for other trees, brooming means deep trouble. Sometimes the infected part grows so fast that it uses up all the food, so the rest of the tree starves. Not good. In other cases, the broom messes up the tree’s plumbing. Also bad.

The brooming along Lake Michigan (near Baileys Harbor) is most often caused by a parasitic plant called dwarf mistletoe. It’s sort of a kissing cousin to the pretty plant we hang at Christmas. This tiny plant is brown and looks like a miniature golf tee stuck in a branch. What dwarf mistletoe does to a beautiful spruce really does look like black magic. I can understand why superstitious people blamed the supernatural.

The skeletons of dead spruce trees are pathetic. Yet I’m not sure it’s all bad when a few trees die.

When a tree dies, sunlight can reach wildflowers and younger trees get a chance to grow. Quite often, seedlings sprout on a fallen tree. And after a while, the dead trees are recycled into forest soil.

In former times (and still today) people did not fully understand why twigs go wild. The clumps in trees seemed somehow evil. Must be the witches! But maybe brooming can help a forest. A new broom sweeps clean.

Coggin Heeringa is the Director of Crossroads at Big Creek and Instructor of Environmental Studies at the Interlochen Arts Camp.

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